Monkey business with lots to shout about
07:00 22 May 2008
She boasts a first-class degree in philosophy, trod the boards with the Royal Shakespeare Company and played a weeping Jehovah's Witness in Holby City. Now she chats to a toy monkey for a living. 'The world's first sexy ventriloquist' tells Steven Russell how she found her niche and her voice
YOU can't interview a comedy ventriloquist - quite possibly Britain's only female exponent - and not ask her to do the voice. Nina Conti's puppet/colleague/tool of the trade - a sometimes really rather rude simian monkey - is packed away in her car boot, but obliges by projecting a sentence or two through the bodywork.
The voice is a bit of a surprise. Very Sean Connery. Or possibly her dad - the Scottish-born actor Tom Conti - who made ladies of a certain age swoon as Costas the Greek lothario in the film Shirley Valentine nearly two decades ago.
Daughter Nina thinks the traditional ventriloquists' dummies, invariably little boys, have a tendency to come across as smart Alecs, “which isn't always appealing”, and she doesn't go a bundle on squeaky Americanised voices, either. Her furry friend, therefore, speaks in a low and calm manner.
By the way, what's the correct term: dummy . . . puppet . . . ?
“Figures or dummies or puppets. No-one's going to get upset. Some of the quirkier Americans call them knee-pals, which is a bit icky, isn't it?”
Actually, she confesses, she's just got a puppet made of her dad. “Cashing in, isn't it? It's a good likeness, though possibly the most vulgar thing I could have done,” she laughs. It's been made with an eye on her next show at the Edinburgh fringe, when the monkey is likely to put her on the psychiatrist's couch.
Goodness knows what a real analyst would make of it. He might suggest a puppet reveals the part of a ventriloquist's psyche that's usually hidden from view: the dark side . . .
A rather depressed puppet primate, “Monk”, as he's known, “has fiercely high standards and wouldn't suffer fools gladly and would tell them to f--- off, but would also berate me for making him use that language and complain that I'm so repressed I can't use it myself”.
They've been an item, as it were, for about five years - long enough for Nina to be able to switch voices without consciously thinking. “If I had a CAT scan, I think there would probably be a dark patch somewhere in my brain with the monkey's face on.”
They're certainly in each other's pockets a lot this spring as they pound England's dual carriageways, touring Nina's first full-length show. Complete and Utter Conti is a hotch-potch of stand-up, sketches and variety, all of which rely heavily on the use of ventriloquism. Monk is a kind of ringmaster, putting his boss through her paces with a host of different puppets and puppeteers, all played by Nina.
Characters range from her own granddad, who uses ventriloquism to talk with his dead wife - her real grandfather, we must point out, was neither a ventriloquist and nor did he communicate with his deceased spouse - to a one-armed South African voodoo expert with a talking . . . appendage.
Right . . . Bit different from As You Like It and The Comedy of Errors, then.
It reaches Colchester this weekend. Nina's enjoying the tour thus far, apart from the driving.
One consolation is it's a family affair. Husband Stan Stanley, a stand-up comedian, is the support act, personally and professionally. (It wasn't that his parents lacked imagination, but there was already an Andrew Stanley on the circuit and so he changed his name.)
Four-year-old son Arthur, and Nina's mum, also come along if the venue is more than a couple of hours' drive from London, and they all hole up in a hotel. If the capital is within easy reach, the youngster stays at grandma's for the night.
With both parents in the business - mum Kara Wilson has an enviable acting and writing CV - it was inevitable Nina would be seduced by its magic, though not without some initial resistance.
Growing up, there were “a lot of dinner parties with actors I'd seen on telly and that sort of thing: laughing and good fun. And the foreign travel, visiting my dad on film sets all through my childhood.
The film sets just looked so good. And the crews would make a fuss of you just because you were a kid”.
She received a balanced view of the profession, though. Her father showed that good acting often meant dealing with a few demons - none more so than on the Cook Islands in the Pacific, where he filmed the 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, alongside David Bowie. It was set in a 1940s Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, with Tom playing interpreter Col John Lawrence.
“I remember my dad going for a long walk on the beach at Rarotonga, talking about 'looking for the man' he was playing. I thought 'What's Dad doing?' but I could see there was torment.”
After school, Nina “tried rebelling slightly. Well, it was hardly a rebellion - but I took a philosophy degree instead of going to drama school, because I wanted to 'serious myself up' a bit and hopefully divert myself, because it was so alluring, the showbiz lifestyle. I wanted to be sure I really wanted it, and it wasn't just that I hadn't thought of anything else”.
She started a history degree at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, but after half a term switched to philosophy.“I couldn't even bear to read the books,” she says of her original choice. “So deathly dull.”
Leaving found her at a bit of a low. “I still knew I wanted to try acting, but I'd made that bold decision not to go to drama school. Friends had gone to drama school and had agents and were all up and running, and I though 'Oh my god; why did I do that? I can't get back into it.'
“Then I did a mini-pupilage in law, shadowing and being helpful to lawyers, and thought 'God, I'm really not cut out for this!' This lawyer was taking home a two-foot stack of notes at the end of the day and I thought 'There is no way I could do this.'”
So she threw herself into acting from about 1996. There were a few years of the odd pub theatre engagements, and she got a part in Holby City.
The Conti name was a double-edged sword: you had to prove yourself worthy, but it did open doors, because people were curious to meet you.
In 2000 and 2001 she was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company troupe in Stratford and London.
“I loved being with a group of actors, though I did feel I didn't quite fit into it. I found the extra-curricula stuff so cringy: the games, the warm-ups. It feels so completely stupid. I want to say 'Yah boo, sucks'.
Games like what?
“Walk around the empty theatre and say 'I am wonderful' in the most Shakespearean voice you can summon up. I was just clenching my cheeks, thinking 'Please, someone, tell me we don't have to do this.' Awful . . .”
And then someone high up in the RSC's voice department said after a performance: “Darling, there are two kinds of voices. One I can listen to, and the other I just shut off. Now make yours one I can listen to.” Nice.
Nina mentioned this to Ken Campbell, a writer and director known for his unconventional work in theatre and once described as an eccentric genius. She'd appeared in some of his productions and Ken was a major inspiration - in this instance offering some rather bizarre advice.
“He bought me a puppet and a 'teach yourself ventriloquism' kit. He said ventriloquists are the masters of voice; so, if you want to know more about voice than they do, learn ventriloquism.
“He's unusual; he pings people off on adventures. He doesn't just say something like that; he then will buy the kit, the doll, and it turns up at the stage door, and the onus is then on you to prove him wrong. I thought I wouldn't be able to do it, but it came quite easily, really.”
Well, easily but not wonderfully, in her judgment. Nina made a little video recording of herself in action to give to Ken.
“I thought I was not very good at it, so 'Thank you very much for the present, but I think you ought to give it to someone else.' But I watched the film back and it seemed the puppet had a complete life of its own. Watching it, it looked a lot more real than it felt at the time, and I got quite excited by the illusion. You could make anything talk, and talk about anything, and it suddenly seemed like a great opening.”
Ken wrote for her a play called Let Me Out!!!, billed as a ventriloquial farce, and Nina put it on “as a last-minute gamble” at the Edinburgh fringe in 2001. She'd been practising her new-found talent for only about 12 weeks before risking it on stage.
It wasn't long before the monkey appeared on the scene. His character grew “from something out of his face and my granddad's personality”.
In 2002 she won the BBC New Comedy Award and there was no looking back. Nina was, still is, excited by the craft. “When you find a puppet and character you like, it makes your brain go places it otherwise wouldn't.”
The future possibilities are endless, she feels. You can use ventriloquism in all sorts of comic monologues and plays. There are also high hopes of a sitcom - a prototype is being written - and Nina would love to make a film about this quirky branch of entertainment. It would probably take the form of a road trip for her and the monkey, visiting ventriloquists in America, attending conventions, and weaving in archive material.
Acts such as Ray Alan and Lord Charles, Roger DeCourcey and Nookie Bear, and Keith Harris and Orville passed her by - lucky girl - so it would be fun to investigate those and others.
A lot of people find ventriloquists and their dummies a bit sinister. What does she like about her job?
“As opposed to acting, which is the only other one I know, you are in control, though with that goes a lot of responsibility and questioning of what you're doing to make your standards higher. I think the control is a blessed relief.”
Even if nothing much develops over the years, Nina quips that she could probably make a living doing kids' parties and cruise ship shows into her 70s. Whether or not Monk would be along for the ride is open to question.
“As the years have gone on, I'm possibly less attached to him. I suppose I was probably a bit soppy early on, and now I'm a bit cold - I've worked it so long now that it feels like a tool. And, also, I have a son! I was perhaps viewing the monkey as a surrogate son until that point.”
Monk's actually proving handy in raising young Arthur.
“The monkey's very nice to him. It's a strange one to bring into your life, but because the monkey is around, and I don't have him in a special box - he's usually hanging out of my handbag - my son can pull him out and say 'Get monkey to read this story . . .' And he does.
“Monk suggested once that it was bedtime, and that almost broke the relationship, when he realised the monkey was an agent for me!”
Whatever turns her career takes, the likelihood is that her dolls will enjoy a long retirement - even if, like humans, they show signs of wear and tear.
“They lose their flocking - I like the word flocking; I milk it for all it's worth. Now they've got cuts at the side of their mouth, the mouth starts to tear open and they lose their shine.
“But ultimately they'll outlive me and end up on the grandchild's mantelpiece . . .”
Nina Conti is at Colchester Arts Centre on Saturday, May 24. Box office 01206 500 900. www.colchesterartscentre.com
Nina Conti's radio work includes the Radio 4 series Claire In The Community and Speaking From The Belly
TV credits include Ant And Dec's Saturday Night Take Away, the drama series Single, and Dylan Moran's girlfriend in Black Books
She's appeared at Harrah's Casino in Las Vegas
Nina and her monkey had a bit part in the 2006 film For Your Consideration, playing a weather forecasting team on the fictional Wake Up L.A. show