Making a big impression

Liz Thomas
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Jon Culshaw made his name mimicking stars but Liz Thomas hears how he is now planning a move into straight acting and even has his sights set on Doctor Who

This week in Look Who’s Talking, I managed to bag time with a line-up of the rich and the famous, including George Dubya and Charlotte Church – all brought to me through the medium of Jon Culshaw.

The star of Dead Ringers proved a slightly disconcerting but very charming interviewee, just because I was never quite certain when he would slip into another impression.

Culshaw and the team are midway through a national tour for Dead Ringers on Radio 4 and it is non-stop. The next location is Hull, where the Lancashire talent spent four years as a DJ on local station Viking.

He says: “I’ve got some happy memories from back then. I used to do the afternoon show – back in those days Chris Eubank was a new voice to do. Him and people like Frank Bruno, John Major and Terry Christian from The Word.”

Culshaw’s ascent into popular consciousness should probably give hope to the thousands of young comic hopefuls that, one way or another, talent will out. Early on in his career he won Lancashire’s Red Rose Radio’s Search For a DJ contest.

He explains: “It was about 1987 and I won the chance to present the overnight show in old St Paul’s Church, which apparently was haunted. Great eh? On my own from 2am-6am in this haunted church. After that I toured around different radio stations and did voiceovers on commercials.”

In 1993 he won a talent contest on Steve Wright’s afternoon show for Radio 1. He says: “I just sent in a tape of a collection of voices of the time all edited together. It was from that tape that I got a job on Spitting Image – it was a great gig. I moved to London for that and also started doing more voiceovers as well.”

Culshaw provided more than 30 impressions for iconic satirical puppet show Spitting Image but also spent time doing voiceovers on radio. His work hit the headlines during a stint at London’s Capital FM, where as part of DJ Steve Penk’s prank team, he called up Tony Blair pretending to be William Hague, then leader of the Opposition. The exchange with the prime minister made all the tabloids.

After a while DJing on Capital Gold, Culshaw contributed to the Chris Moyles show on Radio 1 and also worked on Dead Ringers. He adds: “Dead Ringers is playfully satirical. Someone once called it a cross between Private Eye and The Beano, which I think is a good description of the spirit of it. The beauty is that because it is topical, the material is always refreshing, changing and moving forward, as are the characters.

“The television series came after that and it is still going strong now. We’ve got this radio tour, another series and a Christmas special coming up. The tour is good and it is great to get to other audiences. We do try and top our hats to wherever we’re going. For the phonecalls we’ll call people in Tunbridge Wells or Warwick or Cardiff.”

I ask him if he does Charlotte Church and, without missing a beat, he extols another anecdote in a growly South Wales accent. Weaving in and out of impressions, he compiles his favourites. Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Blair come up trumps but he has a lot of fun with George Dubya too.

He says: “There is nothing better than impersonating a person in front of them. It’s like slapping them with their own personality and seeing how they can respond.”

He dismisses the idea that there is too much rivalry between fellow impressionists Alistair MacGowan, who did the first series of Dead Ringers on radio, and Rory Bremner (whom he looks uncannily like).

Culshaw laughs: “Rory Bremner I’ve met on many occasions and I got on very well with – people think we’re brothers. He’s very generous. Alistair’s a bit more introspective. You know sometimes if he’s done a character he thinks that no one else should do it. I’ve always said that everyone who does impressions brings something different to the character.

“Look at the way people do Tony Blair. Rory Bremner’s version is a sort of gentle, baffled character, who wonders why no one can see things his way, whereas mine is more demonstrative, you know, ‘People of Britain this is your imperial overlord’ and lots of the jabbing, pointy finger. As long as you find your own comic take on the character, that’s fine.”

However, according to sources at the Labour party conference, there was a distinct lack of humour on the part of Blairite chief whip Hilary Armstrong, who leapt to the defence of the prime minister when he was ridiculed by the Dead Ringers team at a BBC party there. Armstrong allegedly heckled the group aggressively and for some time.

“Oh yeah, that’s right – there was somebody calling out and I couldn’t hear very much. Just clearly someone who doesn’t have too much of a sense of humour,” he says.

The show is doing quite well on BBC2 and he is also involved in BBC1′s Commercial Breakdown, which is out later this year. But while Culshaw has previously been involved in other comic ventures, such as animation series 2DTV, interview show Alter Ego and his own programme, The Impressionable Jon Culshaw for ITV1, he reveals he is keen to try straight acting.

He admits: “I want to evolve into a straight actor over the next few years – some character acting, some straight acting. Something that is not associated with impersonations. The next challenge is some character acting – one that you develop.

“The best part in the world is Doctor Who. I’d love to do that. In years to come, the possibilities of it are endless but Russell T Davies has this great way of anchoring the show. It would also be quite nice to do something in Coronation Street, you know?”

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