The art of Impressionism has been a popular pastime for centuries. From a family sharing an “in joke” around the dinner table to a comedian showcasing their repertoire of voices to a packed audience, Britain’s love affair with impersonation is well documented. Comic, puppeteer and impressionist Steve Nallon has been making Britain laugh for over three decades in theatre, radio and television. In his own words he is “a turn” and in an age where Variety is considered by many to be dead, he remains a shining example of an all round entertainer.
Press play, below, to listen to the full interview
Growing up in the north of England during the 1970’s, there were very few outlets for entertainers to hone their craft until working men’s clubs throughout the country began to play host to live entertainment. It was on this circuit that Steve realised his comedic potential but it wasn’t always a good experience and he would frequently have things thrown at him if the audience had enough of his act. Yet as soon as he did impressions of Hilda Baker and Frank Spencer the audience promptly became on his side. He then realised that those few impressions were slowly becoming the most popular part of his routine. It occurred to Steve that he wasn’t a comedian at all, he was a comedy actor and was far more at home behind a character than he was as himself. In the same way as the great Ronnie Barker found it difficult to be himself in front of the camera, Steve felt vulnerable when forced to go on without a character. Working with the legendary Mike Yarwood in the eighties, he was always instructed to walk out at the end of the show so that the audience would be able to see the man behind the voices. For Steve, this was totally alien as he wanted to remain invisible and anonymous from the public.
In 1984 Nallon joined forces with the cream of British satire for the irreverent political puppet sketch show Spitting Image. The eighties was an extremely rich time for satire with three formidable figures in charge of the western world. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev provided extraordinary amounts of scope for potential comedy writers for the simple reason that they all possessed traits that were easy to exaggerate for comic effect. Growing up surrounded by strong matriarchs, Steve always found it easy to impersonate the opposite sex. In a strange way he felt that he understood what Margaret Thatcher represented and realised that when she believed in something, she would defend herself to the hilt. This was a way in for Steve to perfecting one of the most recognisable voices of the twentieth century.
Being synonymous with such an iconic figure has its complications and on Thatcher’s death in 2013 Steve left her voice behind. He realised that there was something weird about impersonating a recently deceased high profile figure and promptly put his character of Thatcher to bed. Yet after a while The Iron Lady became historical and so his charactercher gained another dimension. In 2015 the writer and broadcaster Jonathan Maitland wrote a stage play surrounding the relationship between Thatcher and her chancellor of the exchequer Geoffrey Howe (listen to my interview with Jonathan Maitland here).
When Thatcher resigned from office in 1990, it was not only the end of an era for Britain but political satire massively suffered as the best comic character of the eighties had gone. The comedy world was changing and having seen his comedy idol Mike Yarwood struggling to adapt to the ever-changing comedy landscape, Steve Nallon didn’t want the same happening to him. Yet Steve was not finished with the Iron Lady yet…in 1989 he satirically wrote Thatcher’s autobiography I, Margaret to critical acclaim.
Slowly turning into the elder statesman of Impressionism Nallon insists that it’s a young man’s game. Yet this hasn’t halted his creative output and as you read this, he is beavering away on yet another writing project which it remains too early to reveal. It was a great pleasure to interview Steve Nallon about his life and career and I’m already looking forward to the next time.