A Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image puppet. Photo: Getty
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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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.