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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Is it true that a PR firm full of Blairites is orchestrating the Labour coup?

Portland Communications has been accused of conspiring against Jeremy Corbyn. It's not true, but it does reveal a worrying political imbalance in the lobbying industry.

The secret is out. The Canary – an alternative left wing media outlet – claims to have uncovered the story that the lobby missed. The website has discovered “the truth behind the Labour coup, when it really began and who manufactured it”.

Apparently, the political consultancy and PR firm Portland Communications is “orchestrating” the Labour plotting through its extensive network of Blairite lobbyists and its close links to top media folk. Just when we thought that Tom Watson and Angela Eagle might have something to do with it.

Many Canary readers, who tend to be Jeremy Corbyn supporters, have been lapping up and sharing the shock news. “Thank you for exposing this subterfuge,” said Susan Berry. “Most helpful piece of the week,” enthused Sarah Beuhler.

On Twitter, Mira Bar-Hillel went even further: “It is now clear that @jeremycorbyn must remove anybody associated with Portland PR, the Fabians and Lord Mandelson from his vicinity asap.”

The Canary's strange, yet popular, theory goes like this: Portland was set up by Tony Blair’s former deputy communications chief Tim Allan. On its books are a number of Labour types, many of whom dislike Corbyn and also have links to the Fabian Society. The PR firm also has “countless links to the media” and the BBC recently interviewed a Portland consultant. Err, that’s it.

The author of the piece, Steve Topple, concludes: “The Fabians have mobilised their assets in both the parliamentary Labour party, in the media and in the sphere of public relations, namely via Portland Communications – to inflict as much damage as possible on Corbyn.”

To be fair to Topple, he is right to detect that Portland has a few active Blairites on the payroll. But on that basis, the entire British lobbying industry might also be behind Labour’s coup.

Rival lobbying firm Bell Pottinger employs paid-up Blairites such as the former prime minister’s assistant political secretary Razi Rahman and his ex-special adviser Darren Murphy. Bell Pottinger also has former News of The World political editor Jamie Lyons.

Are Rahman and Murphy also telling docile Labour MPs what to do?  Is Lyon busy ensuring that his old mates in the lobby are paying attention to the Labour story, just in case they get sidetracked or don’t fancy writing about the official opposition imploding around them?

And what about Lodestone Communications, whose boss is a close pal of Tom Watson? Or Lexington Communications, which is run by a former aide of John Prescott? Or Insight Consulting Group, which is run by the man who managed Andy Burnham’s recent leadership campaign?

Having tracked down the assorted Blairites at Portland, Topple asserts: “It surely can be no coincidence that so many of the employees of this company are affiliated to both Labour and the Fabians.”

Indeed it is no coincidence – but not in the way that the author suggests. Since the mid-1990s, Labour lobbyists have tended to come from the pragmatic, Blairite ranks of the party. This is largely because Labour spent the 1980s ignoring business, and that only changed significantly when Blair arrived on the scene.

Whisper it quietly, but Portland also employ a few Tories. Why don’t they get a mention? Presumably they are also busy focusing on how to destroy Boris Johnson or to ensure that Stephen Crabb never gets anywhere near Downing Street.

What is certainly true is that Corbynites are incredibly hard to find in public affairs. As one experienced Labour lobbyist at another firm has told me: “I know of nobody in the industry  or indeed the real world – who is a Corbynite. All of my Labour-supporting colleagues would be horrified by the accusation!”

David Singleton is editor of Public Affairs News. He tweets @singersz.