John-Paul Stephenson

Interview: Steve Nallon #2 – ‘Comedians are all lunatics’

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Steve Nallon, best known for impersonating Margaret Thatcher in Spitting Image, is touring in the comic play Cissie & Ada: A Hysterical Rectomy, based on the northern housewives played by Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough in the 1970s and 80s. Steve discussed the Cissie and Ada stage show in the first part of our interview. In this second part, Steve talks to John-Paul Stephenson about Spitting Image and modern comedians.

JPS: Can we talk about a certain TV show called Spitting Image?

SN: Next year will be 30 years since the show was first broadcast, which seems very strange.

JPS: Do you think Spiting Image would survive today?

SN: Everything now is about celebrities. It becomes self-consuming. I have nothing against celebrities – I do them in my act – but when the whole of television is about celebrity it’s difficult.

Financially Spitting Image wouldn’t survive now because television now is so cheap. We were told that Spitting Image was the most expensive light entertainment show! Considering that an afternoon chat show would probably cost fifty or sixty thousand for the whole hour, and that Spitting Image was costing £250,000 thirty years ago — and you could probably double that now — you can see that it is almost impossible to make money out of it. ITV have wanted it back, but you’d have to build a factory to make the puppets; the overheads would be enormous.

Spitting Image has Mrs Thatcher to thank because when it started it was in the enterprise zone in the Docklands [the site which now occupies Canary Wharf], which meant that they were able to get away with no health and safety, so all of the building of the puppets with all the toxic waste from the foam was just in a warehouse. There were no extractor fans; it was quite Dickensian.

JPS: And those puppets were heavy!

SN: It was freezing cold. We had gas fires everywhere; it was a bugger to get to because I was in the middle of nowhere. It was a tough time. I couldn’t do it today; satire needs young people to make it work.

JPS: I’ve watched clips of you being interviewed when you perform Thatcher. It’s amazing how much you look like her without any costume.

SN: [impersonating Thatcher] It’s very difficult to imagine what you look like because you can’t see yourself. And you must never look into a mirror but when you do that you become [drifting back to Steve] too self-conscious. Occasionally I test it out that the end of a voice to see what I look like and how I’m standing. I do the physicality of it without knowing I’m doing it.

JPS: And how many interviews did you do in April?

SN: Quite a few! She died on my first day off after doing Cissie and Ada in London. I was having lunch with a friend of mine who received a text saying that Thatcher had died. I said, “We may as well stop lunch now because my mobile is going to start ringing”. And, about thirty seconds later, the phone started ringing! And the phone rang for about five days.

I felt like the mayfly, which has a 24 hour existence for once a year and then disappears. I can’t say it was fun, because someone had died, but at the same time it was interesting running around all of the studios again.

I remember someone on Spitting Image talking to me about the “wickedness of Thatcherism” and the poverty she created. I told him, “Don’t patronise me about what you consider to be poverty.” I came from a one-parent family, and I was the only kid in my school on free school meals. But I wasn’t in poverty because there was no poverty emotionally; we had people who loved us. Thank God for the North!

JPS: It’s a complex issue, because it can be possible to sell Thatcherism as a positive thing. Things like self-preservation… although that’s not exclusively a Thatcherite principle.

SN: Many of the northern comedians I’ve worked with are all Thatcherite. Self-reliance, hard-work, pulling yourself up. That’s what comics have had to do. You’ll find that many comedians who come from that world actually are Tories. That’s brought up in the show [Cissie and Ada: An Hysterical Rectomy] when Les Dawson finds himself voting for Thatcher, ‘partly for financial’ reasons he says.

I actually think many of the Oxbridge people are anti-Thatcher because of guilt because they come from an incredibly privileged background and they think they have to be liberal.

JPS: At the Edinburgh Festival this year [for Stuart Goldsmith’s Comedian’s Comedian podcast], Brendon Burns criticised pseudo-left wing comedians. My reading of that was that was that some appear to come from a left-wing stance, but then are very quick to criticise people they perceive to be beneath them, so any pretence of equality is thrown out of the window.

SN: Comedians as individuals are all lunatics. They are huge egotists; you have to be to get on the stage.

Mock the Week is full of incredibly clever comedians saying some incredibly clever things about people who are not quite as clever as they are. I would say that Mock the Week and The Now Show are incredibly clever, but not always intelligent. There is a self-congratulatory smugness which pervades. If I were making a comic sketch about Mock the Week, I would attack their naivety.

They are telling you what’s wrong with the world, but they’ve never made a difficult decision in their lives. I’d say, “Your parents left you £500,000 when you were 25 and you’ve never had to work for a living.”

We remember lines from Cissie and Ada thirty years after they’d been written, but I don’t think you’d remember any lines from Mock the Week. It’s like a bit of chewing gum; I laugh at it, but I don’t remember anything about it the next day. It’s very transitory laughter.

JPS: What do you think has changed?

SN: Comedians from the 1970s had a vulnerability about them. Les Dawson had a vulnerability about him because he was so ugly. Tommy Cooper, Larry Grayson, and Morecombe and Wise did too. When you watch the modern comedians, you don’t see much vulnerability. I’m not saying that’s better or worse, I’m just saying that’s one of the big distinctions between that traditional style from which Les came and the more modern style. Modern comedians have a stronger personality and stronger opinions.

I’ll tell you about the problem with the Oxbridge world. I saw a comedian in 1983 or 4 – whose name I won’t mention –  who was the unfunniest comedian; died on his arse every night. He came up to me and asked what I was doing after Edinburgh. I replied, and I asked him what he was doing. He said, “Oh, I’ve got a job.” In my head I though “Oh great, you’ve got a proper job and you’re going to save the world of comedy from your complete comedic incompetency.” I asked what his job was, and he replied, “I’m a light entertainment producer at the BBC”. That’s what they do – they employ themselves.

JPS: I’m trying to think which of the comedians on TV or the circuit at the moment will have a biopic about them?

SN: No, because we don’t love them. We may laugh at them, and they can be very, very funny. But we don’t love them. And as soon as we come out on stage as Cissie and Ada — I feel a bit of a prat for saying this — but you can feel the warmth. Tommy Cooper and Larry Grayson had to make the audience like them. You had to in order to survive.

There’s a real problem on the circuit; ultimately to be very successful you need to be different. You need to be Eddie Izzard. The ones who become truly successful are the ones who are truly different. Yet, in order to survive the comedy circuit itself you’ve got to impress the lads in their twenties. So you’ve got to go out and talk about getting pissed to get the audience on their side. It’d more difficult to do something original, like Izzard. But, then, the comedian who talks about getting pissed is never going to get anywhere because he’s like any other comedian. So the ultimate dilemma is that it order to be accepted you need to be recognised as one of them in the audience, but that’s never going to project you any further than the circuit itself because it’s difference that survives.

A comic on Mock the Week might be successful in a sense because they’re on television, but they are not an icon because there’s nothing any different.

In the final part of our interview, Steve talks about political correctness in comedy.

Cissie and Ada: An Hysterical Rectomy is currently touring the UK, with 29 dates including South Shields (30 September), Darlington (1-2 October), Wakefield (14-16 October) and Salford (5 November) amongst others.