These days, being on the internet feels like walking barefoot through shattered glass – but, every so often, a precious gem appears. I’m talking about the talking dog, obviously. You know the one: wire-haired, cheeky of grin, beady eyes that gleam with mischief? The border terrier puppet with a face so fundamentally absurd it makes you question everything you’ve ever known as you actually laugh out loud at a children’s TV segment? Alright cockers, it could be none other than Hacker T. Dog.
Though many of us would’ve been slightly too old to have been familiar with Hacker when he first aired on CBBC in 2009, he’s pretty recognisable to us now. Back in April, a blooper clip from the show went viral. In the clip, Hacker – commanded by legendary puppeteer Phil Fletcher – and co-star Lauren Layfield are face to face, uncomfortably close. Hacker says “We’re just normal men,” much to Lauren’s astonishment. Though she immediately begins to corpse, she goes along with it, asking: “What do you mean, normal men?” Hacker: “We’re just innocent men.” Cue one of the few internet moments of late to unite the world – not in rage or hatred – but in pure, and yes, innocent, joy.
But what does it even mean? What is a Normal Man? And who on earth is this talking dog? To find out, I spoke on Zoom with the man behind the meme, Phil Fletcher, and also had a little chat with Hacker himself.
VICE: Hey Phil, how’s it going?
Phil Fletcher: I’m good as new!
Let’s just start from the beginning – how did you get into puppeteering?
I started when I was a little kid. I’ve always been a fan of puppets and The Muppets and all that stuff. My favourite when I was a kid was Rod Hull, the emu – I had a puppet of that when I was about four. Everyone had the same puppet back in the 70s, but I was doing it properly. Everyone else was just being crap and I was being great, even then! I then started my own company when I was 11 making puppets, and I’ve been making money off it since then.
I heard in another interview you’ve done that you’ve always known you wanted to do puppeteering as a job – was this an alternative route into comedy or just a passion for puppets?
It was just puppets, you know! I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I have no memory of having any other ambition other than being a puppeteer. That’s not to say I wanted to be a TV puppeteer, that was never on the agenda. It’s so niche, you’re gonna waste your time on that. So I thought forget that, create your own act, do shows and just be the best you can be in that world. And you can do that, you can create your own business quite easily in this game – you just gotta do it. By fluke, all the TV jobs I’ve ever ended up doing have just flew into my lap.
Phil Fletcher with Hacker T. Dog. Photo: Courtesy of Phil Fletcher
Obviously you’ve done Hacker on CBBC since 2009, so I would’ve been a bit too old then to have known who Hacker was then. But I came across Hacker from that clip and I’m a massive fan now, and many other people my age are too – how does it feel to have adults find you as funny as kids normally do?
Thank you, cocker! It's good because, performing Hacker, I’ve never really catered him to just the kids. I’ve always tried to amuse myself, because you gotta in that job. I’m under a desk on my own and I can’t see the presenter much, so I’m only there to amuse myself. I just do what I find funny, so if people find that funny, that’s great. It’s not life or death, I’m only messing about, cocker.
Many of the Hacker clips I’ve watched have actually made me laugh out loud – is Hacker scripted?
I’ll tell ya, all the bits you found funny are always ad lib. The bits that are always the funny bits are just made up – I’m always just trying to throw the presenter under the bus, really. I have no regard for the presenter, I just throw them under the bus because I think it’d make good telly.
The “Innocent Men” clip, I just made it up on the day, just to make Lauren laugh. It was years ago, so I can’t really remember what happened, but I think there was a trailer on beforehand where someone was being interrogated close. So I said to the sound man a few seconds before, “Don’t play the grams”, which is the underlying music. So we came back on live, silently. I said to Lauren, get your head right next to Hacker, and I just said, “We’re just normal men.” Her reaction was genuine because she didn’t know what I was gonna say, nor did I, really. It just threw her over the edge, because what does that even mean? Why would you say that on kids telly? Then the music came in. The silence was funnier, and there’s no reason why it’s funnier, it’s just nonsense!
It is total nonsense – it must be such a fun job.
It’s the best job in show business, it’s certainly the best job in puppetry – there’s no other jobs like it. It’s the best job in the world. I get to turn up every day and play Hacker, who is honestly just me.
Yeah I was gonna say, I feel like I’ve met Hacker like, in a pub.
Definitely, if you’ve met me in a pub, you’ve met Hacker in a pub.
Do you feel like you get away with more interviewing people as Hacker
Oh god yeah, you’d get thrown out normally if you said the stuff I said to people. You get away with murder, the puppet has a kind of cartoon logic. It’s like the Keith Lemon thing – anyone that plays a character, you can go further than if you were a normal person. God knows how Hacker gets away with it, I don’t know how I’m still doing it.
Probably best not to question it. But obviously, BBC’s made the decision to axe CBBC – what does this mean for you, and for Hacker?
No one’s told me this, what’s happening?! No, it’s in about three years, isn’t it. It’ll all be going on the iPlayer, but I literally only know about as much as you know.
Would I be able to speak to Hacker?
Yes you can! I’ll get out of the way, we don’t get on…
Phil Fletcher with Hacker T. Dog and the author on Zoom. Photo: Dani Ran
[Hacker appears on Zoom]
Hacker T Dog: Hello, cocker! It’s me, the innocent man from show business! The meme, what does it even meme?
Nice to meet you Hacker, how are you today?
I’m good thank you, I’ve been waiting there for ages, that previous bit to me coming on was reaaally boring!
Yeah, it was quite boring. I mean, you are the star of the show.
I would just cut all that bit out and just use it from now if I was you.
Yeah, that makes sense. How’s it feel to be a celebrity now?
It’s amazing! I’ve been a celebrity all my life, but only in recent months I’ve gone, I would say, virus. Yeah! Virus, cocker. Riddled with it. I’ve been everywhere. I’ve gone virus! Stratospheric! Through the roof, oh yeah!
Do you have any celebrity dog rivals?
No, course I don’t, cocker. Scooby-Doo, he’s two dimensional, I’m three dimensional, so I’m one dimension better than him. Pippin, he’s dead isn’t he. There’s loads of them that are dead. I’m the best one! And I’m still alive, so that’s great, isn’t it cocker!
I think you are the only talking dog the UK needs.
I totally agree, I’m the best one, all the others pale into insignificance in my shadow! BOW DOWN TO ME, I’M THE BEST!! So there.
So Basil Brush is headlining Glastonbury, are you jealous?
No, I’m glad! I don’t like mud, and I don’t like camping. So he’s more than welcome to it, cocker.
Do you have any words for Basil?
Yeah, BREAK A LEG! And I don’t mean that in a good luck sense. Me and Basil are very close, you know. He’s actually got a Christmas single out this year, and I’m in the video!
Oh my god, is that embargoed information? Can I share that?
Oh who cares, do whatever you want, cocker.
Well it’s been lovely to talk to you, thanks so much!
It’s been my absolute pleasure. Who should I invoice for this?
Ah, just send it to my boss.
I will! I won’t, I can’t even write a bloody email, I’ve got no hands, cocker. Have you enjoyed our interview?
Yeah, I guess so. Have you been interviewed by many others?
I have but I can’t remember, so they're not as good as you, are they?
Yeah, dogs don’t have very good memory, do they. Or maybe they have a very good memory.
I can’t remember.
I handed you that one.
Well I need a hand, sometimes. Can you send me the interview?
Yeah, I’ll send it to Phil.
Who? Right well I’ll be off, I think Sue Barker’s sent me another restraining order. Bye!