Puppet masters

Puppet masters

By John Winfield
May 31, 2024


Writer Abi Morgan and director Lucy Forbes pull back the curtain on Eric, a Netflix miniseries that stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a desperate father who believes a puppet holds the key to bringing home his missing son.

From Sherlock and Starsky & Hutch to True Detective and The Bridge, the mismatched crime-solving duo has been a staple of television drama for decades.

Now, Netflix has taken that trope one step further with Eric, in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s character teams up with a giant furry blue and white puppet to search for his missing son. Although, of course, things aren’t quite that simple.

The setting is 1980s New York City, and Cumberbatch plays Vincent, the talented but volatile creator of a hugely popular, Sesame Street-esque puppet show called Good Day Sunshine. When his son Edgar goes missing, Vincent becomes convinced that the only way to find him is to get Eric – a puppet that exists only in drawings by Edgar – on television.

As Vincent sinks further into self-loathing and alcoholism following Edgar’s disappearance, and his erratic behaviour alienates his family, colleagues and the police, he finds an unlikely ally in Eric, whom he begins to see and talk to. But is Vincent simply losing the plot, or does Eric truly hold the key to bringing Edgar home?

Starring alongside Cumberbatch (who also voices Eric) are Gabby Hoffman as Vincent’s wife Cassie; McKinley Belcher III (We Own This City) as NYPD detective Ledroit, a closeted gay man who is convinced Edgar’s disappearance is linked to a seedy nightclub; and Clarke Peters (The Wire) as George, the maintenance man for Vincent and Cassie’s building and an early suspect in the crime.

Eric stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Vincent, whose son Edgar goes missing

Touching on themes including racism, mental health, homophobia and the AIDS crisis, the six-part series comes from playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Split), who traces its origins back to her own time in the Big Apple when she was younger.

“I’ve spent quite a lot of time in New York over the years and I really love it as a city,” she says. “I was there in the mid-80s, when I was about 18, and I spent a really hot summer in Times Square. It’s always really fascinated me as a place and a time.

“Both my parents were in theatre – my dad ran theatres – and so I was always really interested in the backstage, and I love process. I guess I wanted to write about those tortured artists who turn out to be arseholes, and to try to take the character of Vincent on a journey. So those two worlds came together.”

“Arsehole” is certainly one way to describe the curmudgeonly Vincent who, despite being the man behind a whimsical children’s puppet show, seems to bristle at every human interaction. It’s a typically impressive performance from Cumberbatch, but also one that may surprise viewers who are only familiar with his more mainstream Hollywood roles.

Morgan was understandably delighted to get the twice-Oscar-nominated actor on board. “I always love to write with actors in my head, and often they’re an amalgam,” she says. “They’re kind of a strange lovechild of [UK actors union] Equity and [US equivalent] SAG, and so there was something brilliant for me when Benedict did come on, because I think he’s that kind of weird fusion. He can do that kind of transatlantic thing; we’ve seen him in Doctor Strange do that very vivid, magical stuff. But we also know he can do The Imitation Game or The Power of the Dog or the other million-and-one wonderful things he does.

“He was such a professional. I know people bandy that term around, but I think we were all kind of blown away by the dynamism. I suddenly understood why those actors get the big bucks that they do, because they get on stage and there’s kind of an alchemy.”

Gabby Hoffman is Vincent’s wife Cassie, with the disappearance putting strain on their relationship

The show has elements of magical realism, with the fantastical Eric puppet standing in stark contrast to the dark and brooding depiction of New York. And it’s through this unusual character that the drama explores Vincent’s mental health.

“It’s something I’ve talked about quite a lot before,” says Morgan. “I did a show called River [the 2015 BBC drama miniseries about a grieving detective, starring Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker] a few years ago, which explored the voices in your head and how they personify.

“I love the idea that, through finding these drawings [of Eric] left behind by his son, Vincent thinks he’s discovered his son’s imaginary friend. And then actually, what you realise in the course of the show is that it’s Vincent’s imaginary friend. So it’s about legacy; it’s about the monsters we hold within.

“I like the idea of these two worlds – one which is kind of hard and potentially realistic and filled with tropes that we know, but running in parallel is this story of something that’s quite innocent on one level, it’s a benign force, and on another level, as the show goes on, you realise there’s a darker kind of nemesis at work in Eric.”

Rather than relying on CGI, the puppets in Eric are very real. While Cumberbatch provides the title character’s voice, the walkaround puppet was operated by puppeteer Olly Taylor.

“He was an amazing puppeteer,” says Morgan. “He was always on set and worked so beautifully with Benedict. On the first day that Olly came on set in the Eric costume, that was the moment when I understood why Eric is totally there at the heart of the show,

The set for Good Day Sunshine, Eric’s show within a show

“We’re trying to play with this idea that there was this kind of naivete, this sort of faux simplicity at the heart of it. When he came on the set [as Eric], everyone, from crew to grip – it was like 200 people – we all became like children again. It was all, ‘Can we have a handshake? Can we take a photo with him?’ So it’s playing with this very naive thing in the middle of this quite hard, brutal landscape of New York.”

Eric and the puppets that populate Good Day Sunshine were made by Emmy-winning character fabrication specialists Stitches and Glue, whose work can be seen in hit dramas including The Last of Us and Stranger Things.

“They make huge amounts of puppets anyway, so we decided we wanted to work with them, and they introduced us to an illustrator called Poppy Kay. And working with her, we just started creating the puppets,” says director Lucy Forbes, whose recent credits include acclaimed NHS-focused miniseries This is Going to Hurt.

“From that, we then worked closely with Becky [Johnson] and Paul [Vincett] at Stitches and Glue, and I basically had pretty much the most fun four months of my life, living my 80s dream, talking about fur and teeth and colours and what [the puppets] should be wearing.

“Good Day Sunshine is the show within the show and it was really important that it felt really bedded in and really real and didn’t feel like an afterthought, because ultimately it’s the centre of everything.”

Vincent believes Eric, a puppet designed by Edgar, can help bring his son home

Helping to achieve that aim is a remarkably catchy theme song for Good Day Sunshine, created by celebrated actor, comedian and musician Tim Minchin, while Cumberbatch and other cast members underwent extensive training to convincingly portray puppeteers.

Of course, the world of puppetry is just one part of this story, which takes Cumberbatch’s character to dark places in search of his son. Forbes notes that the actor drew on his own experiences as a parent to conjure the emotions necessary for his performance.

“The fact that he’s a father really came into it,” the director says. “There was a day when we were filming in New York. He’s standing outside of [Edgar’s] school and he’s been drinking, and a single tear falls down [his face]. Literally five minutes before we shot that, he’d been running around, kicking a football around with a security guard and just messing about. Then he just stepped in and did that. That was the take. And I was like, ‘How the hell did you do that?’

“He said, ‘Well, I’ve got three boys.’ So it’s something he can draw to so easily, and it’s really, really powerful. There are lots of moments where you can see how much he’s drawn from his relationships with his kids.”

Cumberbatch, Morgan and Forbes are all executive producers on the show, which debuted on Netflix yesterday. The production companies are Morgan’s Little Chick and Sister, whose co-founder Jane Featherstone and scripted creative director Lucy Dyke also exec produce.

While filming did take place in the real New York City, much of the series was shot in Budapest, Hungary – making particular use of a backlot that was originally constructed for Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Most of the series was filmed in Budapest, which doubled for New York City

“We shot 80% or 85% in Budapest,” says Forbes. “Budapest had so many amazing things available to us. It has this huge underground network of beer tunnels, which we shot all the sort of underground stuff in. It has a New York backlot, which was built in 2008 for Hellboy II, which we did a number on.

“It also had a theatre for the Good Day Sunshine world and the workshop, and ultimately just had lots of amazing studio space that we could build lots of sets in. Also, the interiors that we did use in Budapest had really interesting architecture and sort of felt reminiscent of the time period.

“It had so much to offer – amazing crew and so many talented people. We lived there for six or seven months, and I really loved shooting there.”

Watching the series, you’d certainly never know you were looking at Hungary, with 1980s New York stunningly recreated with painstaking attention to period detail. “Reference-wise, I feel like I looked at every single photograph that was ever taken on the streets of New York in the 1980s,” Forbes jokes. “I was drawn to early Spielberg, but also films that bedded-in the period without it being a distraction, like American Hustle, which did it really well, and I, Tonya.

“I watched as many documentaries about the 1980s as I could. There’s an amazing one about the behind the scenes of Sesame Street, [plus others] about the crack epidemic, about police corruption… But I didn’t want the time period to be distracting and I wanted it to feel bedded in. I didn’t want anything to feel too clean. 1980s New York was dirty and gritty, and I wanted to feel that we were always evolving with that idea throughout.”

That setting forms the backdrop for a drama that touches on many difficult issues, both 80s-specific and contemporary. But Morgan says she doesn’t write with these things front of mind.

The supporting cast includes McKinley Belcher III as NYPD detective Ledroit

“I don’t think you write anything saying, ‘I’m going to write something about race, equality, homophobia. I feel it’s all to do with six degrees of separation,” the writer explains. “It’s really about the different cogs and the way they cross. I try to do a lightness of touch with those connection points. It’s about that period in mid-80s New York that was going through that incredible moment of transformation. And I hope those things read, but I’m not consciously going, ‘Right, tick – I’ve done that. Let’s put a bit of racism in there.’

“They inherently work. If you make a lead black actor also a homosexual and put them in the NYPD and then do your research, it’s pretty impossible to avoid homophobia and racism. So that kind of runs in parallel. It always had to work because it was being driven by the story, never the subject or the theme of it. I tried to work against that, if anything.”

Ultimately, although the show takes its name from a big furry beast, Morgan emphasises that the real monsters in Eric “aren’t under the bed, the real monsters aren’t what we expect them to be in the show. They are always somewhere else.

“And we try to throw light into the dark and dark into the light.”

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