Born in Omskirk West Yorkshire in 1968, writer and comedian Jon Culshaw grew up in a small community hearing multiple voices and dialects. From a young age he realised the subtle differentiation between the language of different villages and nearby towns observing the slight changes in phrasing within the Yorkshire community. Such a fascination carried forward into the school arena and when one of his teachers was late for a lesson, Jon seized this opportunity to entertain by doing an impersonation of the absent teacher. This was the first time that Jon had been in front of an audience and gave him his first taste of the artform which he would go on to perfect in the years to come.
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A part time job at a garage during the mid eighties would strangely give Jon an epiphany and put him on the road to success. To while away the day’s laborious chores, Jon would avidly listen to commercial radio and take a lot of pleasure from the jovial patter of the presenters. With an interest in music, he began to consider whether he would be suitable for this medium and promptly set about attempting to break into radio. This coincided with the development of hospital radio spearheaded by broadcaster Alan Beswick on Red Rose Radio who completely transformed the style in which the medium was presented. Suddenly it allowed itself to become increasingly informal and lighthearted. The young Jon landed a show at Omskirk General, broadcasting to both staff and patients. Hospital radio provided the perfect grounding for Jon at the age of just eighteen, honing his skills as an announcer which made him realise that radio wasn’t just a flash in the pan but a true calling.
On the path to success, Jon worked as a DJ for a variety of commercial radio stations including: Viking FM in Hull, Pennine Radio in Yorkshire and was Radio Wave in Blackpool. Yet it would be a union with the broadcaster Steve Penk on Capital Radio which put Jon on the comedy map. In the midst of the positivity of New Labour, Penk was forever on the lookout for radio devices to push the boundaries of daytime broadcasting. Having perfected the voice of the unmistakable leader of the opposition, William Hague, it was decided that Jon should make a telephone call to 10 Downing Street to speak with the prime minister Tony Blair. This idea was originally created to attempt to fool the receptionists on the switchboard at parliament and never did it occur to any of them that they would in fact get straight through to Tony Blair himself. Culshaw and Penk were live on Capital Radio as they made the phone call and were totally shocked when they were put through to the Prime Minister’s voice on other end. Ever astute and savvy, it sadly didn’t take Blair long to work out that it wasn’t the legitimate Hague on the other end. Yet it did provide a bizarre experience for Jon as he found himself on News At Ten being discussed by the great Sir Trevor McDonald. This is just one incredible day in a career which has featured so many.
Whilst at Capital, Jon met yet another significant figure in the direction of his career. Fresh from local radio in his hometown of Leeds, DJ Chris Moyles had secured the early breakfast slot. Realising how much they had in common, it didn’t take long for the pair to enjoy on air chemistry which transcended the airwave. As a performer, Jon proclaims that he works best when he feels part of a team and Moyles thrives upon being a ringleader to a group of like-minded individuals. This provided a marriage made in heaven and Culshaw was able to follow Chris Moyles to his eventual home of drive time Radio 1. Such exposure extended Jon’s appeal to the eighteen to thirty demographic and provided the perfect springboard to his TV career.
Yet this wasn’t Jon’s first brush with national acclaim as in 1994 he joined the cast of ITV’s satirical juggernaut Spitting Image replacing Steve Coogan who had just created The Day Today. This resulted in Jon inheriting the character of Michael Portilo for the remaining two years of the cult sketch show. His tenure on Spitting Image spanned the latter half of John Major’s reign as Prime Minister and following such a forthright leader in Margaret Thatcher, it was proving difficult for comedians to find the right angle to satirise him. Forever portrayed by the press for having a dull persona, the producers had the vision of making a grey puppet and this gave Jon the perfect opportunity to hone his impressions of some of the most powerful figures of the western world. Despite Spitting Image coming to an end in 1996, Jon had now discovered something that would come to dominate the rest of his career.
In 1998 Jon was approached by radio producer Bill Dare regarding a brand new satirical comedy sketch show on BBC Radio 4. Combining the talents of titans of Impressionism including Alastair McGowan, Kate Robbins and Jan Ravens, Dead Ringers was first broadcast in January 2000. This was the most politically volatile era since the fall of Thatcher and unforgettable figures dominated the headlines. The relationship between Tony Blair and George Bush provided unlimited scope for satirical comedy. The series proved an instant success for Radio 4 which helped to put Impressionism back on the entertainment map and by 2002 preparations were underway for the transition to television.
One of the most popular aspects to Dead Ringers on Radio 4 had been the prank phone calls by impersonated celebrities to unsuspecting victims. TV producers were quick to realise that this would be extremely difficult to convey on the television incarnation and were on the lookout for a device that would have the same punch as its former radio self. They then discovered the use of hidden cameras which had proved popular on other hit comedy shows of the day including Trigger Happy TV. This resulted in Jon dressing as 1984’s Doctor Who Tom Baker as they dropped him into a big shopping centre and secretly filmed the public’s reaction to him. The idea was that he would help a member of the public by either directing them to their desired destination or assist with carrying their shopping. All of a sudden, he spotted a woman attempting to get her bags into the lift and went over to assist only to discover that the woman in question was none other than Elizabeth Sladen aka Sarah Jane Smith; Tom Baker’s original companion from the series. Sometimes comedy writes itself!
By 2003 Jon Culshaw was a TV star in his own right and was selected to appear on that year’s legendary Christmas Night With The Stars hosted by Michael Parkinson. Appearing in a sketch as the 1970’s king of chat, Jon interviewed the modern day Parky about the many differences between the 1970’s and the present day. This idea spawned the Radio 4 series Face To Face in which Jon interviewed a celebrity as themselves which was something he became fascinated by and was shocked by how revealing his guests could be when coming face to face with their heightened alter ego. Beyond comedy and entertainment, this was an original, fascinating format and one that Jon remains extremely proud of.
Just six years later, Jon found himself promoted to prime time BBC1 as he united with the talents of actress Debra Stevenson for The Impressions Show. Having known Debra for many years, Jon found it easy to share the screen with her as they were naturally in sync and knew the breathing patterns of the other. Such chemistry proved to be one of the secrets to the show’s success as they satirised the likes of Posh and Becks, The One Show and Michael McIntyre. Surviving for three series and one Christmas special, The Impressions Show gave the BBC a hit prime time comedy vehicle and made this ancient art relevant for the Social Media generation.
Despite TV success, Jon has always kept true to his first love; radio. Now into its eighteenth series, Dead Ringers remains as popular as ever as it continues to satirise the biggest news stories of the day. From the halcyon days of George Bush and Tony Blair to the frequently bizarre exploits of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, it’s clear that Dead Ringers shall always have the unique ability to find comedy in every political event and use laughter to reflect and celebrate the mood of the nation. Long may it reign over the airwaves.
Slowly becoming an elder statesmen of Impressionism, Jon has decided to look back and celebrate his career in the form of a nationwide conversation tour alongside producer and long time friend Bill Dare. Yet at what promises to be the mid point of his career, it’s impossible to know where comedy will take him next. It was an absolute pleasure to meet and interview the great Jon Culshaw and wish him all the very best with whatever awaits him next.