Since the 1980s, Jan Ravens has been one of the UK’s top impressionists and a regular on shows such as Dead Ringers, playing politicians Theresa May and Hillary Clinton, among others. She talks to Nick Smurthwaite about starting out in Cambridge Footlights, balancing acting with impressionism and exploring personal tragedy on stage
Like many performers, Jan Ravens has made a career out of playing other people. Hers just happen to be found on the 10 o’clock news, rather than in the theatrical canon.
As one of Britain’s top impressionists, she has spoofed Theresa May and Hillary Clinton, Diane Abbott and Nicola Sturgeon on comedies including BBC Radio 4’s long-running Dead Ringers and her 2017 one-woman show Difficult Woman.
But she is also a serious actor, equally at home with Shakespeare as stand-up. Her next role is starring in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads at Watford Palace with Julia Watson. Ravens will perform two monologues – Soldiering On and A Lady of Letters – in roles that have been played by, among others, Patricia Routledge and Stephanie Cole.
“I love words and there is absolutely nothing superfluous in Bennett’s writing,” she says. “He gives you lots of signposts to help you learn it – alliteration and weird patterns in the text.”
When developing her take on the character of Muriel in Soldiering On and Irene in A Lady of Letters, she continues: “I grew up in Hoylake in the Wirral so I can often hear my mother, my nan and their friends in Bennett’s women. The tones and rhythms of their speech are so familiar to me. What you realise by the end of A Lady of Letters is that Irene’s bigotry and intolerance come from a place of abject loneliness.”
She says her role model, growing up in Cheshire in the 1960s, was Glenda Jackson, another local girl made good, who proved there was life and success beyond the Wirral. “I was a shy, nervy kid, but it didn’t stop me wanting to perform,” she says. “I started to act at my grammar school. We didn’t do drama as a subject but I had an amazing art teacher, Mary Metcalfe, who used to put on productions. I also went to an out-of-school drama workshop, run by Mark Dornford-May, where I started doing impressions of the people in charge. If you’re a natural mimic you can’t help observing people and trying to replicate them. I was a keen observer of people, which isn’t always a good thing.”
If you’re a natural mimic you can’t help observing people and trying to replicate them
Drama school was ruled out on financial grounds, so Ravens found herself doing a four-year teacher training course at Homerton College, Cambridge, at the suggestion of her much-admired art teacher. She says: “I auditioned for Footlights in my second year at Homerton and got in. I did lots of writing and directing. I suddenly found that you could be anything you chose to be, which was incredibly liberating. I look back now at the things I did at Cambridge and think: ‘How did I dare do that?’”
In her final year at Homerton, Ravens became the first woman to be elected president of Footlights. It was after she left – “I was working in a knitwear shop in Kensington at the time” – that Hugh Laurie invited her back to Cambridge to direct a revue he’d written with Stephen Fry.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working as a Saturday girl in the Peter Pan shop in Hoylake.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Directing the Footlights revue at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in 1981.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That you don’t always need to care so much about what other people think.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My art teacher, Mary Metcalfe, Glenda Jackson and Victoria Wood.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t talk too fast.
If you hadn’t been an actor/impressionist, what would you have been?
Probably a teacher although I think I’d have made a really bad one. Kids don’t make allowances for you.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
That revue, The Cellar Tapes, which also featured Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery, went on to win the first ever Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1981, and effectively launched the careers of all involved.
Ravens was promptly head-hunted by the BBC Light Entertainment department as a comedy producer, which proved to be a mixed blessing. She says: “BBC Light Entertainment at that time was like a well-established golf club: very male, very sexist. All the other producers were men, the female secretaries were expected to hand round drinks and canapés at the Christmas party. I nearly had a programme taken off air for using the word ‘orgasm’. They definitely regarded me as a feminist troublemaker.”
On the plus side, she got to work with people like Jeremy Hardy and Ian Hislop on the long-running satirical radio show Week Ending, and created a new comedy show, Three Plus One, which featured three women and one man.
The warm-ups she did for live recordings soon led to her switching from producing to performing. With her first husband, the composer Steve Brown, she took a comedy revue, Ha Bloody Ha, to Edinburgh in 1983, in which she performed sketches as Victoria Wood and Claire Rayner.
It was seen by Jasper Carrott, then one of the UK’s top stand-ups, and Ravens was recruited as a comedy performer for his popular 1980s TV show, Carrott’s Lib. She says: “As a result of doing Jasper’s show I was offered Spitting Image and the die was cast – I was an impressionist. Ever since then I’ve had to remind everyone I’m an actress as well.”
When she hasn’t been in demand for her outstanding mimicry skills, Ravens has tried her best to beef up her acting credentials, with roles at Chichester Festival Theatre in John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse, as Viola in Twelfth Night at Birmingham Rep, and as Sophia in Tom Jones at Watford Palace.
I nearly had a programme taken off air for using the word ‘orgasm’ – I was definitely regarded me as a feminist troublemaker
Is there a conflict between impressionism and acting, or do the two disciplines complement each other? “When we did Dead Ringers on TV everyone said it would be different because we’d have to act out the characters. But you still have to act out the characters on radio. It’s the physicality of the character that makes it sound the way it is. Take Theresa May. Everything about her was tense, shoulders, jaw, you actually had to feel that in order to get the voice. With Diane Abbott everything sounded a lot looser, as if she’d just woken up from a nice nap,” she says.
She was due to step out from behind the famous faces and take a self-penned autobiographical show, Who Do I Think I Am? to Edinburgh last summer, but at the last minute decided that its self-revelation – in the wake of a major trauma in her personal life – was too raw.
The show previewed at Wells Comedy Festival in Somerset before Ravens made the difficult decision to shelve it. “I thought it might be therapeutic for me in some way but it turned out to be heart-breaking,” she says.
“My husband got very ill with encephalitis in 2015 and lost his memory. After two years of rehab he admitted that he didn’t know me. We’d been a golden couple and I thought our marriage would last forever. So part of the inspiration for the show was the idea that these strong women had picked me up and taken me away from this horror.” Her response to this personal tragedy was to immerse herself in work by inhabiting other people and other worlds.
After Talking Heads in Watford, Ravens will be back on the road with Dead Ringers Live during April and May. Is there an expectation, whenever she does a TV or radio interview, to trot out the usual suspects? “Of course there is pressure to be a performing dog because that’s why I’m there. But asking me if I regret being known as an impressionist is like asking if I regret going to Cambridge. My life took a path that has mostly been amazing and exciting.”
Born: 1958, Cheshire
Training: Teaching degree at Homerton College, University of Cambridge (1976-80)
• The Cellar Tapes, Edinburgh Festival (1981)
• Ha Bloody Ha, Edinburgh Festival (1983)
• The Relapse, Chichester Festival Theatre (1986)
• Twelfth Night, Birmingham Repertory Theatre (1989)
• The Children’s Hour, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2008)
• Difficult Woman, Edinburgh Festival/UK tour (2017)
• Rory Bremner meets Jan Ravens, Edinburgh Festival/UK tour (2018)
• Dead Ringers Live, UK tour (2019-20)
TV and radio:
• Carrot’s Lib, BBC (1983)
• Spitting Image, ITV (1984-93)
• The Grimleys, ITV (1999-2001)
• Dead Ringers, BBC Radio 4 (2000-present)
• The Big Impression, BBC (2000-02)
Agent: Martha Atack at InterTalent
Talking Heads is at Watford Palace Theatre until March 29. Details: watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk