Steve Nallon made his name as the ‘voice’ of Margaret Thatcher in Spitting Image. Now he’s playing the former Prime Minister on stage. Phil Penfold talked to the Leeds-born actor.
Imagine, for a moment, being in a room with Tony Benn. Sir David Attenborough is behind him, over his shoulder. In another corner there’s Sir Bruce Forsyth, and next to him, Alan Bennett. The place is crammed full with celebrities and familiar voices. Except that there’s really only one other person.
No, it’s not a bizarre dream, because the person in question, and voice of them all, is Steve Nallon. The Leeds-born actor may not be as well-known as the people who he “inhabits”, and if he walked past you in the street you probably wouldn’t recognise him, but that’s the way he likes it.
Nallon is the man who has been impersonating the great and the good and the mad and the bad for almost four decades – his uncanny ability to skewer the vocal characteristics of public figures winning many fans. One of his most famous impersonations is of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who remains loathed and adored in about equal measure, depending on your political stance.
It’s a role he is returning to in a new play, Dead Sheep, which opens in Doncaster early in September. “Couldn’t be a better venue”, he says with a chuckle, “Because if the play is going to get a reaction anywhere, it’ll be there. There’s no love lost between the people of South Yorkshire and Mrs T, is there? I saw the coverage of the reaction to the news that she’d died and I wasn’t a bit surprised at how that went down.”
Dead Sheep, by political columnist and satirist Jonathan Maitland, won plaudits when it was aired in London last year, and now it is embarking on a UK tour.
“It’s an account of the days when Lady Thatcher was brought down, and the moment when one of her best friends, Geoffrey Howe, turned on her,” he says. “She relied on him, trusted him and ultimately betrayed him and it was then that he realised that he’d just had enough.
“The funny thing for me is that no-one ever learns the lessons of history. Which is bewildering. People believe that they are totally impervious, that everyone around them loves them and respects them, and that they are up there on an unassailable pillar, and that they will never be toppled. But Hitler ended up being loathed by Himmler and the rest of that hideous mob. Stalin was hated by the people closest to him. And, of course, Julius Caesar was killed by some of the men he thought that he could trust.
“Who forgets those three words, ‘Et tu Brutus’? The people who feel that they are the most secure, the ones who think that they are above it all, they are the ones who really should be worried.
“I mean, if you’d been in a group of mates at the end of spring, and you said ‘I’ll place a bet that Theresa May will be Prime Minister by the early autumn, and David Cameron will be a has-been’, no-one would have believed you, would they? They’d have thought that you were crackers. If politics wasn’t so impossibly tragic at times it would be completely hysterical”.
Nallon likes his comedy to be incisive and to the point. But he did, he admits quietly, get a few laughs a while back when he just happened to be in one of the bars at the House of Commons.
“I can’t remember the event but I do recall that the phone went, and for some reason everyone looked at me, and I picked it up and said (in Thatcher’s voice), ‘Hello, Prime Minister here’. And there was a gurgling noise at the other end, and someone hung up, pretty sharpish. It was the voice that they clearly did not expect to hear!”
There is no accent that he cannot replicate, though he admits that Geordie takes a lot of effort, and there is only one person that he cannot completely impersonate. “Let’s just say that David Cameron eluded just about everyone who ‘does voices’. It’s just something about him, the way he pronounces words and the inflections he has. He swallows slightly, has a curious pitch. I never quite nailed it. But, now that he’s vanished into the ether, I can’t say that I am very much worried. Rather relieved, in a lot of ways.”
Nallon is meticulous about his research when scripts are offered. “I really do spend days, weeks, looking at video footage, looking at YouTube clips, listening to tapes and writing down observations. Because the mannerisms that people have and the way that they move gives you clues about them. They don’t have to be waving their arms around like a windmill.”
He started out performing in working men’s clubs in Yorkshire and the north as a teenager. “Some of those people were tough. They didn’t take any prisoners and they made me grow up fast. I remember that in one place I was booed off the stage after about ten minutes. The chairman said ‘well done, lad, tha’ lasted longer than the last bugger we had. He didn’t even open his mouth’. I wore that ‘ten minutes’ like a badge of pride for years afterwards. But it was a brilliant training ground, and it made me, in a lot of ways”.
Nallon went to the Jesuit school St Michael’s in Leeds where he discovered his skill at mimicry.
“I found I could ‘do’ Patrick Moore and Alan Bennett... but I never for a moment thought that I would go on to make a living at it”.
After studying drama at Birmingham he became an actor and went on to become one of the Spitting Image stalwarts (remember The Queen Mum, Lord Hattersley and Sir David Frost)?
Now, at the age of 55, he believes that he is in, touch wood, a very good place. “I am contented, I still get offers of work, and so far that anyone is, I’m happy”.
He feels that the course to steer is one which takes the listeners and the viewers to a place they can recognise. “It is useless trying to entertain an audience of people who never watch The Only Way is Essex with some of the voices from that series. In the same way that it won’t work if you do David Blunkett for people who only watch ‘Towie’.
“So you find a middle ground. The Sky at Night used to be a case in point. No-one watches it now, but when it was hosted by Patrick Moore, for some strange reason, everyone caught on to who he was, and how his voice sounded. It was one of those ‘classic voices’ that everyone knew. Same with Eddie Waring. You might not have been a rugby fan, but that voice was unmistakable.
“There are people who didn’t watch Downton Abbey but who did see all the Harry Potter films, so you get a glorious cross-over with Dame Maggie Smith, who was in both. That, I have to say, is a gift.”
He still loves performing but doesn’t obsess over it. “I don’t get all het up about it. It is what I do, and that’s it. I don’t think that I am in anyway ‘precious’. I don’t get all that thing about the ‘psychology of acting’. That’s just silly. For me, it’s a job.”
Dead Sheep, CAST Doncaster, runs from September 6 – 10. For tickets call 01302 3303959.