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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It's time the SNP's terrible record in government was exposed

Do not expect the SNP to apologise for these failings anytime soon. They do not really need to, so successful have they have been in creating a new paradigm in Scottish politics.

The only suspense in Scotland’s elections lies in who comes second. So complete is the Scottish National Party’s dominance that the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto is called ‘A Programme for Opposition’, summing up a campaign in which the Tories and Labour scrap for second while the SNP waltz to victory.

Nicola Sturgeon says it is a matter of when, not if, there is another referendum on Scottish independence; should the UK vote to leave the EU in June, the SNP is likely to push for another independence vote. But all the debates over constitutional questions miss a bigger point: Scotland already has one of the most powerful devolved administrations in the entire world. The SNP has ruled in Holyrood for nine years, and had a majority for the last five. Yet the SNP’s record, particularly for the most disadvantaged in society whom it claims to speak for, is dire.

Let’s begin with higher education. This, after all, is the area in which the SNP are proudest. Five years ago, Alex Salmond declared: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students.” He was so enamoured with the SNP’s policy of maintaining free tuition north of the River Tweed that he unveiled them on a commemorative stone at Heriot-Watt University on his last day as First Minister in 2014.

Scotland is by far the worst country in the UK to be a disadvantaged student. The richest Scottish students are 3.53 times more likely to enter university at age 18 via UCAS than the poorest ones, compared with 2.58 in Northern Ireland, 2.56 in Wales and 2.52 in England. Fewer than one in ten young people from the most disadvantaged areas begin to study towards a degree by the age of 20. And the problems are actually getting worse: just 8.4 per cent of entrants to Scotland’s elite universities came from the poorest communities in 2014/15, down from 8.8 per cent the previous year.

Rather than being beneficiaries of free university tuition, poor Scots have actually been victims of it. Protecting Scottish students from university tuition fees has resulted in a £20 million transfer from disadvantaged students to middle-class ones, according to the policy analyst Lucy Hunter Blackburn. Free tuition has been funded by cutting student grants. And, for all Sturgeon’s disingenuous rhetoric that she would not have been able to afford university with the tuition fees south of the border, protecting Scottish students from tuition fees has been funded by loading debts onto the poorest Scottish students. There is an iron law in Scottish universities: poorest kids graduate with the most debt. Students from households earning less than £34,000 typically graduate with between £4,000 to £5,000 more debt than those from families earning more.

The situation in primary and secondary schools is little better. The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy shows standards of reading, writing and numeracy for 13-14-year-olds all declining since 2011. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the biggest decrease in both writing and numeracy attainment aged 13-14 has been among disadvantaged students.

Educational inequality cripples Scotland from an early age. At the age of five, the vocabulary of the poorest quintile of students is 13 months behind the richest quintile in Scotland. Poor children aged five perform worse than those in England; the gap in cognitive development between children from less well-off backgrounds and others is also bigger in Scotland. Disadvantaged children are the real victims of the SNP’s failure to make good on its pledge, in 2007, to reduce average class sizes in primary schools to 18; they are now 23.3. And this, in turn, can be traced back to the political choice to prioritise spending on free tuition fees over other areas that would help disadvantaged children far more. Between 2010 and 2013, school spending in Scotland fell by five per cent in real terms from 2010 to 2013 while, in England, it rose by three per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2015. Perhaps that explains why, after Easter, 17 schools in Edinburgh  remained closed because of safety concerns, leaving pupils to be taught in other schools and temporary classrooms instead.

The SNP is not only failing Scots in schools and universities. The number of working age adults living in absolute poverty (after housing costs) rose by 80,000 between 2010/11 and 2013/14; the number of children living in absolute poverty also rose by 30,000, and the number of pensioners by 20,000. Pockets of crippling intergenerational deprivation remain too frequent in Scotland: life expectancy in Glasgow is a year lower than in any other part of the UK. Indeed, life expectancy across Scotland is almost two years younger than the rest of the UK, even though Scotland has the highest health expenditure per head of any UK country.

It is a microcosm of wider problems with NHS Scotland. The SNP’s targets for waiting times for hospital admission have been repeatedly missed, including its “guarantee” of a 12-week maximum wait for planned treatment for inpatients. Patients are more likely to have to wait over 31 days for cancer treatment in Scotland than England, and the percentage waiting so long in Scotland has been rising since 2014. There are also grave health inequalities: those in most deprived areas are 2.4 times more likely to have a heart attack than those in the most affluent areas.

Yet perhaps the most shameful part of Scotland’s health record lies in mental health. Patients are 8 per cent more likely to have to wait over 18 weeks for psychological therapy based treatment than in England. Since July 2014, NHS Scotland has also repeatedly missed its targets on children’s mental health.

Do not expect the SNP to apologise for these failings anytime soon. And they do not really need to, so successful have they have been in creating a new paradigm in Scottish politics, in which the independence debate is the only game in town. But none of this should obscure the truth that the SNP have been in government, and with huge power, for nine years. They have floundered - and underprivileged Scots have been the biggest victims of all.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.