On Thursday 30th October comedian Steve Nallon visited the York Union to discuss what makes people laugh. Abigail Hettle interviews him about his most famous role as the voice of Thatcher in the political satire, Spitting Image.
Spitting Image created such an iconic image of Thatcher. How do you react to the idea that you have influenced this legacy we have of her, especially for my generation?
In a way your generation has Thatcher via Spitting Image and comedy more than the real thing. It is like, in a way, looking at Punch Cartoons from the 19th century. You probably learn more from the cartoons than you would from a portrait because we have lost the real person. My generation was brought up with Thatcher, you saw her on television everyday so you knew her far more than her Spitting Image persona. She was on television more often that Spitting Image was. I think that probably from your generation if you put Thatcher into YouTube of course you’ll see her but you’ll probably get as many Spitting Image or other impersonations. There is a truth in comedy, it is disguised but there is a truth. The jokes that we did about her on Spitting Image have a truth in them and it is as interesting to look at the truth in the joke as it is the joke; that is if we got her right. I think we did get her right.
How did you approach the role? Was there a particular side to Thatcher that you wanted to portray?
I think that no. (Impersonates Thatcher) If you wish to do Mrs Thatcher accurately this is how you’d do it. You’d do it very like that as if she was talking to you. Now this isn’t terribly funny. It may be accurate but it’s not funny. (End of impersonation) So what you do is you borrow aspects of her voice from the House of Commons which was stronger…and put it into her natural voice which became her speaking voice. Also it had to match what the puppet looked like and the puppet was extreme. Exaggeration is an important aspect of comedy. It is a component to comedy. It is the means by which you get your comedy across. It had to fit. One I borrowed from the House of Commons but more importantly I had to make it match the puppet which was extreme. She used to be in a woman’s suit as the show got on she became a man and that voice had to chance to reflect that. And by the end she didn’t sound like her at all but it had its own reality.
How have you found the response to your depiction of Thatcher because she was such a divisive figure? Have people said that it as a fair portrayal or it was biased in some way?
I have met cabinet ministers in her time. They said that I made her funny. One of them came up to me and said “You make her funny”. She wasn’t known for having a sense of humour. But no woman of her generation would have told jokes or been funny. It is wrong to say that she wasn’t funny, she had her own sense of humour but most women of her generation would have been exactly the same as her. It wasn’t unique to her. “You do Thatcher a great favour by making her funny”
What do you think Spitting Image’s legacy is? How has it influenced the likes of The Thick of It and political satire of today?
I think that the legacy is just breaking the barriers of what can be done on television. People said “How do you get away with It” and we said “Actually we’ve got nobody telling us we can’t do it”. We used to have something called the IBA which was the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which was sort of like a group of people who would oversee television programmes. Eventually the IBA said go ahead and just make the programme. After 5 episodes they said use your own judgement. We had a very good producer in John Lloyd who was fair. He had his own standards as a producer and if he would receive a sketch that he didn’t think was fair he would say we are not going to use it. Occasionally sketches would come on that were sort of black comedy about people who had died, that I thought were tasteless. His response was “Okay, point taken, we won’t do it”
If you could impersonate any current political figure who would you choose?
Cameron, then I would make a bit of money. My Cameron is (impersonates Cameron) got to get the British people back to work. He’s got a slight catch in his voice. And he is slightly posh and has that way of speaking where he sounds like he has just had a cold. It is actually quite difficult to do.