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 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

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Labour picks Gillian Troughton to fight Copeland by-election

Troughton, a Copeland councillor, was critical of Jeremy Corbyn during the summer leadership race. 

Labour has picked Gillian Troughton, pro-nuclear former doctor to fight the Copeland by-election.

After accepting the nomination, in an email shared online, Troughton said she was "pro-nuclear; no ifs, no buts", and that her husband worked in the nuclear supply chain. She is also a local councillor and a practising Christian. 

She described the election as a choice about the NHS: "I have been part of the campaign against the proposed cuts to A&E and the maternity wing because I know that our community needs this service."

Like Jamie Reed, the current MP for Copeland, Troughton is a critic of Jeremy Corbyn and backed Owen Smith in the 2016 Labour leadership campaign.

She also campaigned to remain in the EU, and now must win over a voting population that voted 62 per cent to leave - the strongest Eurosceptic vote in Cumbria. 

Her victory is a symbolic defeat for the Labour leadership, as she beat Corbyn supporter Rachel Holliday, also a councillor with ties to the nuclear industry and the NHS. 

However, the decision to pick a non-Corbynite may be a relief for those within the Labour leader's camp who worry about "owning" a possible by-election defeat. 

Corbyn said of the selection: “I am delighted that Gillian Troughton will be Labour’s candidate for the Copeland by-election. 

“Gillian is a local councillor with a strong track record of getting things done for her community. She has campaigned tirelessly to maintain local hospital services. 

“As a St John’s blue light ambulance driver, Gillian has seen first-hand the extent of the crisis caused by this Conservative government, which has chosen to fund tax cuts for the wealthiest instead of our health service. 

“I am proud that Labour has selected a local candidate with such dedication to her community.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.