Steve Nallon: SPITTING IMAGE Voice Artist 1984-1996 and 2020. Voices include The Queen Mother, Roy Hattersley, Denis Healey, Malcolm Rifkind, Margaret Thatcher, David Attenborough, Enoch Powell, Bruce Forsyth, Pope John Paul the Second, David Frost, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Edward Heath, Leonard Rossiter, Brian Clough, Shirley Williams, Harold Wilson, Clive Jenkins, Alan Bennett and many more.
Highlights from the BFI panel discussion plus THATCHER FROM HELL film to open.
Thatcher puppet exhumed to relive the 1980s
When in November 1983 Steve Nallon read a short article in THE TIMES about a new satirical puppet programme involving caricatures of politicians he assumed that it would have already been cast. He even threw away the newspaper. But then, after a sleepless night thinking about how right he would be for such a show, Steve rescued the article from the bin and took a closer look. The producer was to be John Lloyd of NOT THE NINE O'CLOCK NEWS fame and the show would be made at Central Television studios in Birmingham. Well, that was convenient, for Birmingham was where he lived.
Steve wrote several letters to John Lloyd c/o Central and c/o BBC and c/o SPITTING IMAGE at Limehouse Studios in the London's Dockland. The letters explained how Steve had worked on the northern clubs as an impressionist and how he had also taken shows to Edinburgh and received good notices. Copies of these reviews were put in each of the threes envelopes. One of these letters must have got through for a few days later Steve received a note from John Lloyd inviting him to meet at Central Television on Broad Street in Birmingham where, he said, he was due to have a meeting with the show's graphic designer. When on the day Steve took this letter to Central reception, the receptionist somehow thought Steve was John Lloyd and so sent him upstairs to be met by a very confused designer. John Lloyd himself arrived half an hour later and seemed impressed that Steve had somehow managed to get himself into the heart of the building.
After a brief chat and exchange of pleasantries, John asked Steve to demonstrate some of his impressions that he had claimed he could do in his letter. Steve said wouldn't it be better if John asked him questions and Steve answered in character. John agreed and a question to Mrs Thatcher about the economy soon followed. Steve had played this game many times before - and often on stage - and so immediately lifted his shoulders, turned his head slightly to the side and went into full throttle Maggie to a stunned John Lloyd. In fact, for a moment or two John was completely unable even to speak and admitted later that he had only agreed to meet Steve because he thought it would make a good bar story after about how this strange lad had written in saying he could do Mrs Thatcher and what a fool he had turned out to be. But Steve was no fool and had come to the audition well prepared. Steve next suggested to John Lloyd that he ask him more questions and this time he would answer them as Roy Hattersley, Enoch Powell and Harold Wilson. As he was doing this, the SPITTING IMAGE caricaturist Roger Law of Fluck and Law came into the room, curious to know what was going on. John started laughing and said, "Roger, Roger! You've got to listen to this guy do Thatcher!" Steve then did his Mrs T for Roger Law who burst out laughing and said he loved the idea of the Prime Minister "being done by a bloke." John Lloyd agreed and gave Steve the job of voice artist on the spot. John then explained that Steve would have to come to London and train up to be a puppet operator as they intended to make the show as in a similar way to THE MUPPETS, that is, with the puppeteer miked-up to perform the characters voices 'live'. Steve was then given a prototype Margaret Thatcher foam head to practice with over Christmas and told that rehearsals would begin properly early in the new year.
Rehearsals it turned out were in an enormous old banana warehouse in the middle of the Canary Wharf in London Docklands. The downstairs area had been converted in television studios, namely Limehouse Studios, where the Channel Four sketch comedy WHO DARES WINS was made. When Steve arrived, he was taken to large room with only a gigantic mirror hanging on the wall, where he met the other SPITTING IMAGE performers, including Louise Gold and Chris Barrie. Louise was to do the voice of the Queen and Chris was already well known for his brilliant Ronald Reagan. The three immediately got on well. Steve said to Louise that he lived in Birmingham and had nowhere to stay in London and so after work the next day Steve was taken to Louise Gold's mum and dad's house in East Sheen where Louise informed them that they had a guest for the next few months. Years later, Steve returned the favour and Louise, Louise's brother Max Gold, and Louise's mum Una Brandon-Jones, all stayed at Steve's house in Birmingham while touring in plays. Steve and Chris Barrie got on well from the start, and Steve has many happy memories of being a guest at Chris's wedding.
Rehearsals in that cold and draughty warehouse room were very arduous for the puppets were heavy and bulky. Every day began and ended with the practice puppets held up in the air in front of that gigantic mirror to sing and dance to a cassette recording of Boy George's 'Karma Chamelon'. The sight of several Leonid Brezhnevs, two Thatchers and a Ronald Reagan belting out that that gender bending 80s classic was a sight never to be forgotten. The other puppeteers in the group were Alistair Fullerton, Kevin Bradshaw, Richard Robinson (with whom Steve later worked with on the BBC series HOUSE OF GRISTLE), Terry Lee Wright and an American performer called Anthony Asbury, who had recently been in the West End's production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS playing the plant, Audrey II. The SPITTING IMAGE series one puppet team was now in place.
When filming began in Birmingham problems soon began to arise. The intention had always been to mike-up puppeteers as this method had worked so well on THE MUPPETS, where voice and movement were integral to each other. However, for Chris Barrie voicing Reagan and Steve Nallon doing Thatcher, this proved logistically difficult as the sketches they were often quite long and technically demanding. Besides, both Chris and Steve were only trainee puppeteers. Someone came up with the solution that the voice artists should stand close by on the set and from that vantage point voice the characters, but at the same time watch and respond to the action. This though proved to be a problem for the show's designer as large sets could not be built or even moved in and out of the studio when the floor was forced to come to a silent halt to accommodate voice recording. And filming just one sketch could take an hour. Set builders, or 'Scenes' as they are called, were forced to stand idly by, much to the frustration of the designer. This and other technically difficulties plagued the early programmes. The eventual solution to the noise problem was simply to pre-record all sketches and then for the puppeteers to 'lip-sync' the puppet mouths to the audio track when it was played back on the studio floor.
There were creative issues too. Many sketches in those early shows lacked a truly contemporary feel. Co-producer Tony Hendra was a man of the 1960s and still seemed to be fighting old battles as he championed a weekly sketch called 'Ex-Chequers', where all the former PMs lived in a nursing home run by Queen Victoria. It seemed a good enough idea on paper, but sank like a very heavy balloon of lead when put on the scene. Something had to give and eventually Tony Hendra left the show and young new writers such as Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were welcomed on board. These bright and fresh young writers brought in more popular showbiz characters such Barry Norman, who Chris Barrie did brilliantly, and Bruce Forsyth, who Steve then went on to voice.
In those early days, the characters Steve did on the series were the then Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley; David Attenborough, the naturalist; Harold Wilson, the former Labour Prime Minister; David Frost, the television personality and Clive Jenkins, the trade union leader. When new puppets came along, voice artists usually had to 'audition' for them or make a claim by having a quiet word or two with producer John Lloyd. One character that came up for grabs was Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Steve could do the voice but that laborious delivery of Runcie's was totally unsuitable for what was meant to be a fast moving sketch show. Besides the puppet was small and Steve's impression though accurate, just didn't match. John Lloyd then suggested something. It was one of the best notes from a director Steve Nallon ever received. "The impression is very good, Steve, but it doesn't work for the puppet or the show," said John, "Try keeping the essence of the voice... but make him seven years old." Steve gave it a go and John Lloyd immediately began to giggle like a schoolboy. The unique voice of Robert Runcie was born. The key to doing voices on SPITTING IMAGE, Steve was discovering, lay not in accurate impersonations but rather caricatured voices that fitted the look and feel of the puppets. Afterall, it was called SPITTING IMAGE, and it was the puppets who had to be the stars of show.
Years later in 1990 Steve did a Channel Four television documentary called ARCH RIVALS on the choosing of the next Archbishop of Canterbury and found that everyone he spoke to in the Church of England imitated his caricature of Runcie than the real Runcie. Such was the influence of the show back in the 80s. Steve's accurate impression of Pope John Paul the Second was also a problem in that like Runcie the voice was too slow for the show, but here the team came up with a different and rather ingenious solution. Instead of adapting the voice, simply have two voices, the Pope's public persona, which Steve did so well, and his more 'jive' private personality voiced by the America puppet operator Anthony Asbury. And it worked brilliantly! JP2 was seen as both trend setting and orthodox and so the show's invention suited this perfectly.
Occasionally, if the SPITTING IMAGE creative team knew a voice artist had a particularly good voice, the makers would create a puppet just for them. This happened with Enn Reitel who did an excellent Donald Sinden and the writing team came up with the comic idea that Donald would every so often pop up in royal sketches waving his reviews and chasing from HMQ 'my well deserved knighthood'. Steve suggested SPITTING IMAGE make Alan Bennett, as he had developed a spookily accurate impression of the writer, as the real Alan Bennett was later kind enough to acknowledge. John Lloyd agreed to this and the writers thought that it might be funny if Alan shared a house with Thora Hird (voiced by Kate Robbins), with Thora making made comments on what they watched on television, including SPITTING IMAGE sketches. All very 'Meta' and the whimsical and charming 'Alan and Thora' sketches became a firm favourite on the show.
Around this time, Steve also suggested Beryl Reid as the voice of the Queen Mum. John Lloyd loved the idea as it was a voice that perfectly fitted the character of the puppet, even though it would sound nothing like the real thing. Not that that mattered, as few people knew what the Queen Mother spoke like anymore as she rarely made speeches in public. It turned out Beryl Reid was aware that her voice had been 'borrowed' as it were and it was even suggested in her biography that Beryl was a little worried that the Palace may even think it was her. But like Robert Runcie and Alan Bennett, Beryl Reid had a voice that made everyone smile. And in a show that could be all too often harsh and hard hitting, a few gentle smiles along the way helped to leaven, you could argue, the bitter satirical pudding.
Steve stayed with the series for the next decade. After the fall of Margaret Thatcher, however, Steve's connection with the programme became less and less, though he revisit the show to do one or two episodes when the voices of Roy Hattersley or the Queen Mum were required, and came back as a guest on the final episode in 1996. That said, in 2015, when SPITTING IMAGE created a puppet of the then Prime Minister David Cameron for the show NHS IN STICHES at the Hackney Empire, it was Steve the producers came to for the voice. Steve was invited as well to be a special guest at the Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration of SPITTING IMAGE at the BFI (British Film Institute) and the interview with Steve featured in the BBC Arena documentary WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SPITTING IMAGE?
In 2020, SPITTING IMAGE was revived on BritBox and ITV. A séance sketch came in with Boris Johnson trying to summon up the spirit of Churchill, only for it all to go wrong, with Boris instead becoming possessed by the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. Not surprisingly, Steve was asked to reprise his iconic impression of the former Prime Minister and was thrilled to do so. Yes, the Lady was for Returning.
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