A Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image puppet. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The voice of the Iron Lady: how hard is it to imitate Margaret Thatcher?

Meeting the man behind Spitting Image's rubbery Maggie.

It’s one of the stranger sentences ever uttered about Margaret Thatcher. “I must have been 15 – it was 1975 when she became leader – and I just sat down one day, and out she came, fully formed.” You could be forgiven for thinking Steve Nallon is talking about some kind of supernatural experience, and in a way he is – except that what “came out” wasn’t a ghost or an apparition, but an impression so good that it’s been central to his life ever since.

“I started doing it at school and then I did it in the northern comedy clubs. At university and then at the Fringe, someone lent me a frock and I started doing it in full costume,” he says. All this experience came in handy when, in 1984, Nallon joined the cast of a new satirical programme on ITV called Spitting Image. The combination of his Thatcher impression and the now-iconic puppet was a great success, and he went on to work on the show for the next 12 years.

Now, 30 years after the first episode, he is looking back. “People think because I do Thatcher that I’m obsessed by her, that I’ve got every book ever written on her, which I don’t … I’m not especially interested in her,” he chuckles. “I had to be, in the Eighties, because of my act. It was a joy when she went because I didn’t have to read the endless newspaper articles any more.”

The voice is as good as ever, though. It’s uncanny, watching Nallon become Thatcher. He drops into it with great ease mid-sentence. His mouth tightens into the slight pout the Iron Lady always had and his posture changes – leaning forward, he tells me with all the solemnity of a prime minister greeting a fellow head of state that he thinks the Two Ronnies are very funny and then wonders: “Could one Ronnie do the joke just as well?”

Naturally, it wasn’t just Thatcher – Nallon voiced all kinds of other characters on Spitting Image. When he does his Alan Bennett for me, he explains that it’s all down to the top lip. “It’s very tense, it’s not going to let you in to any secrets,” he says in Bennett’s voice. In fact, Nallon and Bennett have more in common than just intonation. Both come from working-class backgrounds in Leeds and after moving south to work in the arts “didn’t quite fit in in either place”.

Nallon feels his working-class roots helped him capture Thatcher in a way few other impressionists have been able to do. “I’ve got the background most Labour MPs would die for – cobbled streets, outside loos, tin baths … But it wasn’t a Labour, union sort of family. It was Thatcherite, Tory.”

Understanding this helped him replicate the self-belief Thatcher projected so strongly. Other impressionists, he says, make her too “knowingly patronising” and don’t appreciate that a good impression isn’t just a matter of impersonating someone. “It’s got to be slightly more real than they are,” he explains. There’s an element of caricature, too. The Spitting Image puppets helped with this, but some of it has to be in the voice. “By the end, my Thatcher didn’t sound anything like her,” Nallon says. “It was an alternative-reality version, a parallel universe.”

This month, Nallon took to the stage as Thatcher for the first time since she died last April. He’s had to rewrite his act completely, as the former PM now speaks from the afterlife. “Of course, being dead has its liberations,” he declaims in her voice, then flips back into his own. “I’m only going to do it for ten minutes – God knows I don’t want to make a career out of it.”

“Spitting Image at 30” will take place on Thursday 27 February at BFI Southbank, London SE1, and will include a preview of “Arena: Whatever Happened to Spitting Image”, a new film for BBC4 directed by Anthony Wall

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.