Making a bad impression?

Chris Hallam on the future of mimics

Let’s face it: these are hard times to be an impressionist. Only a few short years ago, the nation’s TV screens seemed to be overflowing with comics mimicking and satirising the great and the good. Today if you want to see anyone pretending to be anyone else, you would be better off seeing a movie biopic than watching anything on the small screen.

What happened? For a short while there in the early years of the century, it was as if Mike Yarwood and Little and Large had never happened. Shows based around impressionists really did seem briefly cool. There was Dead Ringers, 2DTV, Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression, Stella Street and Bremner, Bird and Fortune to name but a few.

Now with Stella Street gone, 2DTV axed, Alistair McGowan having moved into straight acting and Dead Ringers in limbo, only Rory Bremner remains. Even he saw his last Channel 4 run relegated to a graveyard slot.

ITV’s latest animated effort Headcases, meanwhile, met with decidedly mixed reviews when it attempted to revive the ghost of Spitting Image earlier this year.

Even for Bremner – the leading British impressionist of the last 20 years – the immediate future looks challenging. Part of it is down to changes in the political scene. The presidency of George W Bush was a gift to satirists and caricaturists alike, with comics such as Jon Culshaw and, in the US, Will Ferrell, exploiting the President’s frequent gaffes and malapropisms to brilliant effect. The election of Barack Obama, in contrast, presents a number of problems. Partly, there’s the issue of race. Could an impressionist successfully play the new leader without attempting to emulate his skin colour? Bremner has blacked up before to play newsreader Trevor McDonald. Would he, or Jon Culshaw, be prepared to do the same for Obama?

Yet even ignoring racial sensitivities, Obama, currently an almost universally admired and popular figure, presents a far less enticing satirical target than his much reviled predecessor.

This will doubtless change over time. Yet In Britain, the political arena presents few juicy targets for the impressionist either. Yes, there is Boris Johnson, with his silly hair and perpetually bumbling manner. But at the very top there is a void.

Gone are the satirical halcyon days of the Thatcher versus Kinnock sparring of the 80s. True, Brown is easy to caricature as a grumpy Scot, but Cameron and Clegg must be the least inspiring subjects for mimicry to emerge as leaders of their parties since the war. Even Bremner has referred to a ‘character crunch’ to rival the credit crunch. ‘How am I supposed to do people like John Denham, Andrew Lansley and Nick Clegg?’ he complained recently. ‘David Cameron has a very plain voice.’

It’s not all about politics, however. Dead Ringers, after all, mocked the stars of Lord of the Rings and Silent Witness as much as they did the key figures of the political world while Alistair McGowan (himself formerly of Dead Ringers) and Ronni Ancona always focused more on satirising Posh and Becks than Blair and Brown. Even Bremner first made a name for himself impersonating cricket commentators.

In reality, the world of impressionists was never likely to be a packed one for long. While Spitting Image helped launch luminaries like Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield and Chris Barrie, all soon deserted the field, preferring to create characters of their own. Whether they choose to remain in the game or use it as a springboard into other careers, today’s impressionists will be wary of sharing the fate of Seventies comedy giant Mike Yarwood who famously attributed his post-1979 career decline to his inability to impersonate Margaret Thatcher.

Ultimately, there is far more to being a good impressionist than recreating the appearance of the subject. The public will always respond well to a talented mimic. But today’s impressionists must remember adaptation is essential to their survival. And even then, only a select few will ever be able to share the spotlight at once.

Published: 18 Dec 2008

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