Article: Daily Mail June 2017This entry was posted in Press on .
Who are you calling dummy? CRAIG BROWN on why we are living through a golden age of ventriloquism
When I was growing up in the Sixties, ventriloquism seemed a spent force.
On television, Ray Alan ruled the very small ventriloquist’s roost, primarily with Lord Charles, who was posh and wore a monocle, but also with Tich and Quackers — a chirpy little boy and his equally irritating pet duck.
Occasionally, an American lady called Shari Lewis would appear on the scene with a winsome sock-puppet called Lamb Chop.
I also remember Terry Hall with Lenny the Lion, and Roger De Courcey with Nookie Bear. Keith Harris and Orville came a decade later, in what most people thought was the last squeak of a dying art.
As a child I attended birthday parties where a slightly seedy ‘all-round family entertainer’ might have a stab at ventriloquism, but even to us six-year-olds it all seemed a bit forced.
‘I can see your mouth moving!’ we would all chorus, while the poor ventriloquist pleaded: ‘Now then, now then, let’s have a bit of hush at the back, boys and girls!’
How surprising, then, that, half a century on, we should be living through a golden age of ventriloquism.
The week before last, I went to see Count Arthur Strong at the London Palladium. For those of you who have yet to make his acquaintance, Count Arthur Strong is — or at least appears to be — a veteran variety artiste, who enjoys a drop to drink, has a tendency to muddle his words, and is cursed with a memory that is not quite what it was.
After a refreshing glass of what he insisted was Lucozade, Count Arthur brought out two dummies.
King Tut is an Egyptian mummy so heavily bandaged that he can only answer ‘Mmm! Mmm! Mmm!’ to any question. Sulky Monkey is reluctant to talk at all.
A moment of comic genius came when Count Arthur forgot that he was the ventriloquist and waited for minutes on end for his dummy to say something.
He looked more and more exasperated as he put his head closer and closer to the monkey, unable to hear a thing.
One of my other favourite comedians, Tim Vine, has also come up with an entirely new take on this creaky art.
First, he produces a doll called Clowny. ‘What have you been doing today, Clowny?’ ‘Well, I’ve been doing ventriloquism!’
Clowny then brings out a puppet called Lamby. ‘What have you been doing today, Lamby?’
It turns out that Lamby, too, is a ventriloquist, with a birdy doll called Robin. In turn, Robin produces his own doll, a little chick on a string called Ian.
By the end, Vine has assembled five puppets all in a row, each one performing a ventriloquist’s act with the next. It’s a comic tour-de-force.
Neither Tim Vine nor Count Arthur would consider themselves true ventriloquists — their incompetence is in fact an essential part of the joke — but Nina Conti is a technical expert, blessed with an almost supernatural ability to speak in an entirely different voice without moving her lips.
I have now been to see her show four times, and on each occasion I’ve been freshly impressed by the way she appears to be surprised, and often shocked, by what comes out of the mouths of her puppets.
They really do seem to have a life of their own.
Like Tim Vine and Count Arthur Strong, Nina Conti is also adept at playing new tricks with ventriloquism.
In recent years, she has taken to slipping masks on members of her audience, and, through a hand-held mechanism, making them say outrageous things. But she also does something much more ingenious.
At one point, her main puppet, a foul-mouthed monkey, tells her to put him back in the bag.
‘Follow my instructions. I’m a comedy guru,’ he says from within the bag. So she brings her hand back out, this time without the monkey on it.
‘But her hand continues to speak with the voice of the monkey.
‘Don’t you like me naked?’ it says. Nina looks non-plussed.
‘I miss the monkey,’ says Nina.
‘I am the monkey,’ growls the hand.
From there, the unseen monkey says he wants to enter her face. ‘Here I am!’ he says, and the words come out of Nina Conti’s mouth, only in the monkey’s croaky voice.
It’s a strangely unsettling moment: until then, our brains have been content to go along with the illusion that there are two beings on stage, not just one.
Ventriloquism, once so tired and old hat, has now turned into one of the liveliest and most inventive of all the performance arts.
Lord Charles must be spinning in his suitcase.