Ventriloquism may seem like a dying art to some people, rarely explored in our current world of reality shows and TV talent contests.
But one woman attributed with staying true to the skill is comedian Nina Conti, who will soon be taking her Dolly Mixtures tour to The Core at Corby Cube (Thursday, September 26) and Northampton’s Royal & Derngate (Thursday, October 10).
Nina was introduced to ventriloquism by her mentor, the late Ken Campbell, about who she made a BAFTA-nominated documentary, entitled Her Master’s Voice.
Nina said: “I was in my late 20s when eccentric genius Ken Campbell bought me a teach-yourself-ventriloquism kit. I had never been interested in ventriloquism and still wasn’t, but Ken had a way about him that impels you to do his bidding. So I tried it out. I filmed myself doing it, so that I had hard evidence to show him that venting wasn’t for me, but lo and behold, I impressed myself in the video. I was struck by the presence of a second being in the room, which I hadn’t felt while practising. I thought, ‘this is a powerful and underrated art form’.”
But how did Nina meet Ken? “I first saw his shows at the National Theatre and thought they were terrific. After leaving university I spotted him from afar and ran up to his open car window on Hampstead High Street and said ‘I think you’re wonderful!’ to which he replied ‘I like you too!’
“Years later, I heard he was directing a play, called The Warp, which was a 24-hour marathon. Apparently you could just turn up to be in it, so I did and that’s how I met him. He was directing and I was acting.”
Despite being the daughter of actors Tom Conti and Kara Wilson, acting and performing was not Nina’s first choice of career.
“I was quite keen to avoid going into acting because it seemed deeply unoriginal and my parents were both actors,” she recalled. “So I studied philosophy instead of going to drama school and thought hard about our life in the universe, how arbitrary existence is, our moral imperatives, and I emerged three years later a wannabe actress.”
She continued: “When I rented a flat in Baker Street, I did a typing course and spent a couple of years doing some very depressing temping. But the silliest job I did was when I still lived with my parents; I worked for a food delivery service where I would pick up food from local restaurants and deliver to people’s homes. What this amounted to was me delivering pizzas in a sports Jaguar. My parent’s fuel costs would have far outweighed my wages – I frequently got lost.”
With a set of trusty puppets – including the ever-present Monkey – helping to express Nina’s thoughts, is there a surreal and emotional side to ventriloquism?
Nina said: “Certainly in the film I made, Her Master’s Voice, because I brought it [ventriloquism] into every aspect of life.
“Normally on a day-to-day basis I do it on stage. It was fun to explore what it’s like when you do it on your own in a hotel room, far from home in the middle of the night. Of course, the puppets are all privy to my secrets, they’re dealing with the same data, so subjecting myself to their interviews was hi-jinks because they knew exactly what to ask.”
She added: “Monkey is kind of stoical and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. It’s his boxy little face with his small frown. He has also got a kind mouth and for some reason I imbue that with great intelligence. He doesn’t let me down.”
As well as performing her Dolly Mixtures tour, Nina is also working on another film about studying to be a clown doctor in children’s hospitals.
But what has it been like for Nina, touring with her current show?
Nina said: “Lots of bags, lots of faffing, last-minute sewing up of puppet faces and sudden needs for gaffa tape. Eating sandwiches on trains and hefting suitcases into the boot of the car in late night carparks. Keeping children entertained on iPads in dressing rooms, on either side of the show.
“It’s potentially dull and I will miss my family if they are not able to come with me, but the show itself is the fun part, that really is the party for me.”