Steve Nallon: interview
Time Out interviews impressionist Steve Nallon while he‘s in character as, among others, Robin Williams, Maggie Thatcher and Julie Walters
Steve Nallon isn’t perhaps the household name he once was (or should that be the household name his impersonations once were?). Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s if you heard someone say something like, ‘You know, that guy who dresses up and does Thatcher,’ everyone would have known who they were talking about. Nallon was on the telly being the prime minister almost as much as the Iron Lady herself, either dressed up in a twin-set and pearls or as the voice of her spectacularly evil ‘Spitting Image’ puppet.
‘I started impersonating her in 1975 before she became PM. She had just become Conservative Party leader and had a completely different voice, it was much higher and less powerful: “I want to be prime minister, it would be good to have a woman on top for a change.” At that time I was doing the northern club circuit and they loved me because I was doing anti-Thatcher stuff ages before the likes of Ben Elton and that whole bunch of ’80s comedians.’
It’s strange hearing him slip effortlessly into Maggie’s pre-tampered-with voice. He gives me various Thatchers at different points of her career to demonstrate the change in her voice. If I shut my eyes I could actually be in the room with the old bat herself. ‘There are certain characters that you spend so much time being that you start thinking you know what they would say in any given circumstance. You get totally inside them. Thatcher was one of those. I rarely do Thatcher now though, because there is a generation who just don’t know who she is.’
That must be a constant problem for impressionists, having people fall out of fashion and the public consciousness or – worse still – dying on you without so much as a by-your-leave. ‘Yes, that can be a pain although I still do Kenneth Williams and Leonard Rossiter in a couple of routines. I also keep doing Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced 'bouquet') even though they haven’t made a series of “Keeping Up Appearances” for ages. The great thing about repeats and satellite channels is those old programmes are still on the television and that’s the trick. It’s much better to do someone who’s been around for 20 years than someone from “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here” who’s only big for a week.
'Until they’ve sunk into the public’s subconscious mind people don’t know who they are when you do them. Also, you invest a lot of time into getting an impression just right and some of these people, like Jade, come and go in a flash. That would also mean I’d actually have to watch her, and who’d want to do that?’
As Nallon chats away, characters jump from him like expletives from a Tourette’s sufferer. I feel a little like Jesus talking to the possessed man, who replied when asked his name ‘My name is Legion: for we are many.’ It’s difficult to separate the man from the people inside him, so fluid is the movement between the two.
When I listen back to my voice on a tape recorder it doesn’t sound anything like the way I think it does in my own head, so how does Nallon overcome this problem when putting together a new character? How does he know that what he hears in his head will be recognisable to an audience listening to it? ‘That’s a tricky one. The truth is my impressions aren’t quite as good as I think they are. I think they’re perfect but actually they’re not, they’re just off. I think with impressions that it’s not just how it sounds, it’s got to feel right and if it doesn’t feel right as well it won’t work. You also have to find the right attitude for each one you do.’
Who has been the hardest to nail? ‘Robin Williams, definitely. He’s so fast. He even said that he took cocaine to slow himself down. How on earth do you impersonate someone that quick? I was so determined to use him that I put his name on the top of a poster for a show I was going to do a couple of years back in Edinburgh. It forced me into doing it. I knew he was right for the role and so for two weeks I was Robin Williams. I became him. I listened to him non-stop on my headphones to get him inside my head and spent a whole day wandering around the house making Robin Williams-like noises. “Oh man, oh, ha, eh, hey. Good morning, Vietnam! You try and get the ups and downs and the strange inflections he has – nanoo nanoo. He has so many voices within himself. He’s great fun to do but is so fucking difficult.” ’
It’s somewhat surreal watching Nallon get up from the table and move around frenetically like Mork while simultaneously describing and deconstructing what he’s doing still in character. The weirdness is added to when halfway through this impression Vincent, the Time Out Towers maintenance man, enters the room in which we’re doing the interview and sits at the other end of our table impassively looking over some schematics, seemingly oblivious to the morphing lunatic in front of him. Nothing seems to crack Vincent’s implacable features, not even Nallon’s impression of Julie Walters doing the orgasm scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally’. He is a one-man tough crowd.
How do you deal with awkward audiences or hecklers? Is it difficult to put them down in character? ‘Yes, you can’t just have David Attenborough swearing at someone, it wouldn’t be right. You have to think of an angle. When I’m doing Hyacinth I might use something like “Well, as DH Lawrence used to say, go fuck yourself, cunt!” That would be fine.’ It is very funny and, perhaps slightly disturbingly, a little arousing hearing Patricia Routledge use the ‘C’ word. Before things can get any more peculiar I call an end to this conversation with Nallon and the myriad stars who live inside him. He is a true master craftsman.
Steve Nallon can be seen at Comedy at Soho Ho on Jan 11 and 12 and at Comedy Camp on Jan 15.
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