A question that often comes up is “Why do you do so many women?” I used to be a bit defensive about this, pointing out that Stanley Baxter did lots of female voices too, notably the Queen, and even Mike Yarwood occasionally did that fiery red head of the left that was Barbara Castle. Now I don’t care as much and besides, after several decades of trying to work out the answer myself, I’ve finally come up with two main reasons.
The first is that I was brought up in a world where the women of the family were the bedrock, at least in the home. I once asked my grandmother what my grandfather did with what little money he earned. “He pissed it against a wall” was the loud and forthright reply. Without turning all Monty Python sketch on you I do come from that Yorkshire working class world of cobble streets, outside toilets and tins baths. When my father couldn’t afford to feed me and my sister he would send us to my auntie’s for our tea. The men around men seemed to live only for the next pint or ciggie and it was against this background that I developed a deep dislike for that lifestyle and attitude. I spent too many hours standing in the rain outside pubs and betting shops to have much respect for my male elders.
Ah, but the women were different. You see, the women did the one thing I loved that the men would go to the pub or betting shop to avoid and that was talk. They talked and talked and talked. And then talked some more. And I listened and I’ve been listening ever since. It’s an obvious point but it is one that is worth saying. The starting point for an impressionist, and I would say an actor too, is not the ability to use one’s voice but the capacity to listen. Had the men talked to me I might have listened. They didn’t. The women did, and so inevitably it was those voices I was drawn to. Besides, to my ear at least women’s voices have more variety of rhythm, pitch and scale. When I was approached about co-hosting a children’s TV show as a mad cuckoo puppet I said it had to be a female voice as only that would give the range such a character needed. I didn’t impersonate anyone in particular but ‘Vera, The Mad Cuckoo’ is a mixture of all the somewhat odd female relatives I was brought up with.
The second reason is that as a boy growing up, although I knew I was a boy, and was very happy being a boy, when it came to the masculine/feminine identity thing, as opposed to the male/female one, well, that was all a bit more blurred. Gender distinctions were something I never really understood. Or should say that the need to keep gender distinctions was something I never really bothered about. I was happy playing football but equally happy baking cakes. And when it came to dressing up and pretend I was as happy with a feminine identity as I was with a masculine one. I had, for example, a long wide white scarf that could become a shawl for an old lady or a turban for a sultan king or a magic cloak. I invented characters that were both male and female.
The Native Americans have a very thoughtful and perceptive way of describing such personalities which is ‘two spirits’. Anthropologists have tried to substitute this term with ‘berdache’ (from the French word ‘bardache’, implying male prostitute) and even ‘gay’ or ‘bi-sexual’. But why? I think ‘two-spirits’ is just great! It pretty much sums up what I do and, to some degree, who I am. Similarly ‘fa’afafine’ are the third-gender people of Samoa and, incidentally, an integral part of traditional Samoan culture. Fa’afafine are male at birth, and explicitly embody both masculine and feminine gender traits (the word ‘fa’afafine’ has the causative prefix “fa’a”, meaning “in the manner of”, and the word ‘fafinem’ means “woman”. ‘Two-spirit’s, ‘in the manner of woman’, both are far kinder than ‘puff’. Thinking about it now I suspect one of the reasons the men of the family didn’t talk to me or found it difficult was that they somehow recognised those sides of me and simply didn’t know how to respond to it. Their loss. And, looking back, mine too.
So then, both my social background and sexual psychology gave me a certain disposition to quite happily embrace female identities. The truth is I never had any resistance to taking on those voices in frocks or for that matter putting on the frocks themselves. I think this is why I was asked to play the role of ‘the mother’ in a short film called NUMBER THIRTEEN, where the idea was that the audience would never quite know the exact nature of her sexual identity or what her relationship was with her supposed ‘son’. Creepy, but fun to do!
Male attitude to wearing frocks is fascinating, especially when men find themselves in them for stag dos and the like. My experience of seeing very macho men up close in frocks is drawn from two very different experiences. The first when in a production of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, where young men in the audience dressed in fishnets and short skirts, and the second, several years of attending the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final at Wembley, where dressing up is all part of the family day out. Both events have a bit of a Carnival atmosphere, normal rules are thrown out and even discouraged. When very masculine men put on a dress – which obviously is just “all in good fun” – their reaction is usually either to exaggerate gestures they think of as feminine, or take the other route and emphasise their maleness by dropping an octave and speaking much gruffer. Both in my opinion are a form of resistance to the female garb. It’s not just young guys on a night out and rugby fans, either. Some professional actors have this resistance too.
Ronnie Barker, who a made very good and convincing woman, hated wearing a dress. A gay dresser told me that he really didn’t like having to alter the hanging of a frock worn by Ronnie Barker when he was dressed as a woman in front of an audience because he would inevitably became the butt of some Ronnie Barker jokey remark which though never homophobic was nevertheless aimed at reminding everyone that he was a man who did not like being touched by another man. Others develop a nervous giggle, the sort of laughter that is saying, “Ooooh! Isn’t this ‘wearing a dress stuff’ all a bit embarrassing! Aren’t I glad I don’t have to put this on all the time!!! Ha! Ha! Ha!” In comparison, the simple truth is I never had any form of resistance to frocks (though after a long day in shoes with heels and constricting bra straps, I’m more than happy to strip off). No, the frock was never alien to me. And neither was the female voice.
Apart from the women of the family to be intrigued by there were also neighbours and shopkeepers et al. Not forgetting radio, television and, most importantly, records. The advantage of an LP (‘Long Player’, for those under thirty) was that I could listen to it again and again and that is exactly what I did with ALICE IN WONDERLAND read by Dame Edith Evans. Her voice fascinated me. I suppose by some form of osmosis it went in and became such a part of me that I have no memory of ever actually practising her voice at all. When I tried to do it, it just somehow came out naturally, if naturally is the right word for the voice of Dame Edith Evans, whose elegant undulations can perhaps best be described as the vocal equivalent of taking a Rolls Royce for an up and down ride on the Big Dipper. You might think there would be no call for a Dame Edith voice nowadays except she did pop up a radio series I did a few years ago and I used her as the basis for Lady Dingledale who was a character I did in the popular children’s series THE SPOOKS OF BOTTLE BAY. Voice artists are the original recyclers.
When watching films as a kid I was usually drawn to the those types of character actors who appeared in the black and white classics produced by Ealing, Shepperton and Gainsborough Studios which were a staple diet of British television in the 1960s, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. I had a particular interest in those performers who only used to appear for one or two scenes. Actresses such as Esma Cannon, the small bird-like woman who appeared in Norman Wisdom films. Or Gladys Henson, the large buxom woman with bulbous eyes who usually appeared as the charlady. Then there were the better known comedy actresses such as Joyce Grenfell, Irene Handl and Dora Bryan, all of who made me laugh. I had the great pleasure of working with Dora Bryan on a series called CATS’ EYES and I later used a variation of her voice for another character I did on children’s series THE SPOOKS OF BOTTLE BAY called Lilly. The actress though from those younger days that really made me laugh was Hylda Baker. If Dame Edith Evans was a Rolls Royce taken for a ride on the Big Dipper, Hylda Baker was the old banger ridden without brakes on the Mighty Mouse at Blackpool.
Hylda Baker’s roles in films were fewer than you might imagine given her fame and popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Oddly enough too, the parts were mainly serious, notably the wife of the undertaker Sowerberry in OLIVER TWIST and the abortionist in SATURDAY NIGHT, SUNDAY MORNING. She was much better known though as Nellie Pledge in the TV sitcom NEAREST AND DEAREST and later as Nellie Pickersgill in NOT ON YOUR NELLIE. For me though her real comedy strength was her frankly bizarre comedy act from her days on the variety stages, consisting of a one-sided conversation with a mute ‘Cynthia’ character, several feet taller than Hylda, who was in fact a man in a long frock who kept an unstiring expressionless face. And they say alternative comedy was invented in the 1980s.
I actually saw Hylda Baker perform this act in a gay pub in Leeds. I was taken there by my grandmother, though neither of us at the time quite realised what sort of place it was. My grandmother had way of speaking not dissimilar to Hylda Baker in that both women spoke with the sort of overtly loud voice you use when speaking to people who are hard of hearing (or, if you’re a certain type of Brit abroad, foreigners). My auntie Jennifer, who lived with my grandmother, was partially deaf and my grandmother would speak just a little too loud with a just that bit too much over-articulation to make herself understood (I gave ‘Vera, The Mad Cuckoo’ this characteristic to add to her eccentricity). Auntie Jennifer loved Hylda Baker. Perhaps she saw it as a joke on those who feel they have up the ante when speaking to the deaf (actually auntie Jennifer could lip read to perfection and during all the royal weddings would tell us what the Queen was saying even though there was no microphone to pick her up). She joined my grandmother and me on that trip to see the great Hylda Baker. By that stage of her life, playing gay pubs where the punters probably had no idea who she was, Hylda had all but lost it. Her memory had gone and seeing her struggle to get through her act was not a particular pleasant experience.
Hylda Baker was though a showbiz legend, and even until the early eighties I always included her in my stage act. She wasn’t known for a being a very nice woman, according to the rumours she was cantankerous and difficult. Plus she had a reputation for being over-sexed, with particular interest in young attractive stage managers to whom she would say “Would like to sleep with the famous Hylda Baker for fifteen shillings?” Why is she still on my voice list? Well, it’s my voice list and I can put on who I like. And I like Hylda Baker. I only have to imagine her saying “’Be soo-oon’, I said, ‘be sooooo-oon!’” and I laugh. And so would my auntie Jennifer. Oh, they don’t make them like that anymore.
The voice of Beryl Reid was set as a challenge for me by a BBC producer friend called Paul Ciani, with whom I worked on a show with THE KRANKIE’S in 1985. It’s not uncommon for people to make suggestions by saying “Oh, you must do so-and-so” but the lengthy period it takes to create a voice make such proposals easier said than done. But the idea of Beryl Reid was intriguing. Obviously, I thought, the voice would have absolutely no practical use but it might be fun to do for friends if I were able to get her. Besides, no one else did her, which is as good a reason as any!
Beryl Reid that year had become known to a whole new and younger generation as the Grandma Mole in THE DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE. Film roles of the past such as Kath in ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE and June Buckridge in THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE were still there in the public memory, though I suspect only aficionados of British film classics of the 1950s would remember her cameo role in BELLES OF ST TRINIAN’S as the monocled tweedy lesbian. Then, of course, there was her fantastic Connie in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. My word, she was good in that. As good as it gets.
Voices come in different ways. There is no single one-size-fits-all technique. With Beryl Reid it was the phrase “luminous legs” which I think she said in SISTER GEORGE. What happens sometimes is that you find a phrase you can say in character. At first it is just a few words but then you slowly add and build words either side so that it eventually turns into a full sentence. I suppose the best parallel I can offer is when you plant an off-shoot and slowly grow it into the whole. Well, Beryl Reid is a voice that blossomed and has since become a personal favourite. I said I thought it would have no practical use but I later made the basis for the Queen Mum’s voice I did on SPITTING IMAGE from her ‘Marlene’ character, a comic creation from Reid’s days of variety. My Miss Reid also made a brief but memorable2013 appearance in IN THE LIFE, a show I did about the history of the gay language Polari at the St James Theatre. I think she would have been chuffed to know she was so fondly remembered.
Joan Hickson actually appeared in one of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films, MURDER SHE SAID, in 1961. As early as 1946 while appearing in the Christie play APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH the author wrote to her saying “I hope you will play my dear Miss Marple”. Well it took nearly another forty years, but for me the definitive Miss Marple is Joan Hickson in the classic BBC series which ran from 1984 to 1992.
The genesis of my Joan Hickson Miss Marple voice is one of the strangest. I decided to do a comedy routine involving the INSPECTOR MORSE characters Lewis and Morse played by Kevin Whately and John Thaw. The detective series was a bit hit at the time and I thought a comedy routine with the two of them might work quite well in my after dinner speaking act. To that end I spent a long three hour car journey listening to Kevin Whately reading one of the Colin Dexter stories. Along the motorway I kept practising, not always successfully, my “That’s right, sir”, “I really don’t know, sir” and “Will that be a pint, sir?” which were the sort of Lewis catchphrases of the series. Anyway, I arrived home, dropped my bags in hall, put the kettle on and then from somewhere inside me emerged fully formed the great Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. No voice tapes. No practise. No catchphrases. And what was really spooky was that consciously at least I had never even intended to do her at all. She just happened. Odd how the mind works. There I was working hard trying to get the tones and intonations of Kevin Whately’s Lewis but beneath the surface of my unconscious whatever something was putting together a complete here’s-one-I-finished-earlier Joan Hickson Miss Marple.
My Joan Hickson is the one impression other impressionists such as Alistair McGowan, Lewis McLeod and Jon Culshaw get me to do whenever I meet them. I think it’s because it is the least showy voice I do, partly because of the nature of the Miss Marple character herself, and also they recognise that those that seem simple are in truth the most impressive and tricky. It is one of those voices that seems so slight and without note and yet every sigh and infection suggests a very thoughtful process that can reveal so much. Perfect for Miss Marple which is why I cast her as the maidservant, Eurycleia, in THE BIG ODYSSEY who works out for herself that one of the suitors for Penelope is in fact the disguised Odysseus returning from the war. In one of the reviews in Edinburgh where I performed the show in 2002 ‘Joan Hickson’ got better reviews that I did!
Whenever Joan Hickson popped up in films of the 1950s and 1960s she was one of those actresses who always gave those often short and single scenes in which she appeared what directors call ‘a bit of a lift’. They briefly put in some colour and engage you. Hard to describe why but you know it when you see it. Her greatest role though was as Miss Marple. A personal confession here, or rather a revelation as I hardly think it sinful, though many may consider it weird. Joan Hickson as Miss Marple is the only voice I do privately at home for my own pleasure. Something happens. Something appears to be missing. A light is unexpectedly on. On each such occasion I find myself saying to myself in that unique Miss Marple way, “Oh, how very odd…” And even odder, she’s the one who inevitably goes on to explain the little mystery to me… “You see, Stephen, the sherry was the clue that gave the whole thing away…”
When the role of Hyacinth Bucket (“pronounced ‘Bouquet’”) came along in 1990 Patricia Routledge found herself with the role of a lifetime. Here we have a hugely successful British TV sitcom obsessed with class (are there any others?) where Mrs Bucket is a social-climbing snob, always wanting to present herself as higher on the social scale than she actually is, especially to those who she sees as already there such as vicars, doctors and, occasionally, even nobility. However, poor Hyacinth is hindered by her less-than-refined roots that forever seem to be undermining her and are exemplified by her very common sisters Daisy and Rose (when you consider all those three names together you might be forgiven for thinking their parents might have preferred a bigger flowerbed to actual off-spring). The often farcical comedy usually comes from Hyacinth trying to keep apart those who would give away her true working class origins from those socially above her whom she seeks to impress. The part was made for her – and her voice.
I say that because Patricia Routledge was born just before the war in Birkenhead in Cheshire where her father ran a haberdashery shop, and vocally those lowly Wirral roots are still there. It’s a voice that tries to suppress them, and often succeeds as they are quite well hidden, but not totally. That Wirral twang is never quite lost. Patricia Routledge makes an interesting comparison with Cilla Black. While Cilla Black, who hasn’t lived in Merseyside for decades, is now desperately trying to hang on to the voice of her working class roots but struggles to stop her more recently acquired Home Counties tones, Pat Routledge has tried to do the opposite, rid herself of her roots and cover them over with more refined speech patterns, but never quite manages it. Indeed one of her vocal techniques even on KEEPING UP APPEARANCES is to turn her voice on a sixpence and suddenly let loose those more visceral or even brutish tones for comic effect.
I’ve never met Miss Routledge though on the rare occasions I’ve heard her interviewed she comes across as a little Old School. Nothing wrong with that. If I did ever meet her I would find it difficult to call her ‘Pat’ and so Miss Routledge’ it would have to be. A TV stage manager I know who worked on KEEPING UP APPEARANCES told me she was a little surprised when the producer allowed him, then a lowly third assistant, to actually sit at the same table as the said ‘Miss Routledge’ but Old School or otherwise I don’t much care – she is a fabulously good actress.
‘Miss Routledge’ appeared in all my one-man shows. In my version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND she was one of several Alices. Others included Maggie Smith, Penelope Keith and Caroline Aherne. I did this because not only did Lewis Carroll change the size of Alice he often also often toyed with her perceived social status in the eyes of others (the White Rabbit, for example, calls Alice ‘Mary Ann’ the name of his housemaid and a name in Victorian times associated with the lowly servants). ‘Miss Routledge’ was the perfect voice to comment on these apparent shifts in her social status. In THE BIG ODYSSEY Pat Routledge was my Athena, the virgin warrior, who I describe as “more majestic than beautiful”. The no-nonsense side of her character really helped drive the show along. In my CHRISTMAS CAROL she was Mrs Cratchit. Pat Routledge is a fine actress and in her monologues for Alan Bennett, both A LADY OF LETTERS and A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, I think she found a range of true emotional depth. When it came to putting together CHRISTMAS CAROL , although there was generally an emphasis on the entertainment side of the show, I still needed an emotional centre in the scene where Tiny Tim is revealed to have died. In the event therefore I wrote two monologues for ‘Pat Routledge’ as Mrs Cratchit in the style of the Bennett monologue. The first was Mrs Cratchit (who, oddly enough, is not given a Christian name by Dickens) setting the scene for her family Christmas and the second is later in the story, set in the more meloncholy ‘Christmas Yet to Come’. A severely handicapped guy asked to see me one night after the show. He loved it, he said, saying he found it moving and very funny, especially the second Routledge monologue and the references to Social Services. But in an odd way I have Pat Routledge’s acting to thanks for making it work. The truth is you borrow a little bit of their talent when you make them your own.
Well, those are some of the women in my life, or at least their voices. Whether I’m ‘two-spirits’ or ‘many-spirits’ there is a clear fascination with a wide range of female characters, from the forceful northern eccentrics and dominant Dames to understated sleuths and would-be social climbers. I think they are too diverse a collection to ultimately tell you anything specific about me. I was once described by my tutor at college as “an incourageable empathiser”. Let’s just leave it at that.
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