Watch my lips…
Thursday, 14 June 2012

Watch my lips…

For years, it was thought of as an old man’s craft, but Nina Conti is proving that there is glamour, pathos and all-round entertainment in having a dummy as a sidekick…

Written by Edwina Langley

Incredibly popular in the mid 20th century, ventriloquism has taken rather a bashing in recent decades. Horror films such as Child’s Play and the grizzly sequels that followed turned the once loved comedian’s sidekick into ‘Chucky, the serial-killer doll’. Automatonophobia, or fear of wax dummies, seeped its way in and ventriloquist shows were all but banished to the BBC archives.

Until now. Nina Conti, daughter of actor Tom Conti, is shaking up the comedy circuit with an unusual ventriloquist routine. Reviving an art form that was near on dead is no mean feat, but I suspect it has something to do with her dummy. It’s not a freckled doll named Chucky; it’s a monkey called Monk. But don’t let that fool you – Monk is a depressed chimpanzee who criticises and ridicules Nina on stage. And therein lays the genius. For a cuddly toy that shouts at a woman failing to enunciate: ‘Stop pretending it’s not YOUR FAULT’ is worth seeing.

‘It’s endlessly batty that I’ve become a ventriloquist,’ Nina admits frankly. ‘I’m not sure I’ll ever stop finding it funny. It’s not what I planned at all!’ So how did she decide on ventriloquism? ‘My dad knew it was inevitable I’d be on stage because he’d shown me it was a fun life and it had worked so well for him – though I think he’d not have been disappointed if I was going to be a lawyer.’

This still doesn’t explain why she should choose ventriloquism, probably because Nina Conti didn’t so much ‘choose’ it as was ‘led to’ it. She was working as an actress under the guidance of the legendary late director and comedian Ken Campbell, when one day he gave her a present: a teachyourself- ventriloquism kit. Inadvertently, he handed her a career.

‘Ken said “You’re like a clown that doesn’t want to wear the nose”,’ she recalls. ‘And that’s why he thought that ventriloquism would work for me – because I could be the clown and not have to wear the nose myself.’

One might wonder how the 60-yearold knew the young Nina so well. She was, after all, just 25. Little surprise then, to learn that at the time they were having an affair. ‘It was really pivotal. I knew it was a big one. It was a big risk really, getting so close to someone who was so strong, clever and unusual. But I had no idea when I started my relationship with him that the legacy of it would be a career.’

It has been a career that led to Her Master’s Voice – a mockumentary film dedicated to Ken. Self-produced and directed, it tells of how Nina discovered through Facebook that Ken had died, and contemplated packing in her career. She later learnt he’d left her his vent dummy collection and felt she should give ventriloquism one last try. She decided to attend the Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky and dedicate one of Ken’s dolls to the museum.

An amusing and thought-provoking film – one that sees Nina explore her former relationship with Ken, halfembracing, half-rejecting the trade he helped her to hone: ‘This feels silly,’ she says to Monk one night, lying in bed. ‘Talking in an empty room, in the middle of the night, in Kentucky, to an imaginary Monkey?’ Monk replies. ‘Yeah,’ she says, staring straight at the camera. ‘I don’t like it any more.’

Her connection to Monk is particularly interesting. In a poignant moment near the end of the film, she talks to the doll of Ken himself, and reveals she once had an abortion: seven months later, almost to the day, Monk arrived. ‘Don’t you think that’s a bit of a coincidence?’ Ken’s doll tells her. ‘Doesn’t that make him your son? Are you gonna put your son in a box and leave him there for the rest of your life?’

Luckily she decides to stick with it, although she now says that was always her plan. ‘I was thinking about giving it up before I had the idea to make the film – but once Ken left me the dolls, I thought, I’m not going to.’

These days, she seems much happier. ‘I’m preaching to the converted now a bit more. I’m less apologetic. I’m quite happy to talk to something that isn’t real and not care what people think.’

Nina is set to head off to the Edinburgh Festival, armed with her new show Dolly Mixtures. ‘I’ve got five new dolls. What’s wrong with me?’ she chuckles. I imagine her chatting away to her dolls and wonder what her husband, Stan Stanley, makes of it. Luckily, he’s a comedian too (they met at a gig), which must be quite convenient when it comes to trying out new material. ‘He’s written me some funny lines for the show. My God, they’re my best lines – I must get him to write all my jokes!’

Together, they juggle gigs between caring for their two sons, Arthur (eight) and Drummond (15 months). Still, it must be difficult both being in the same profession. ‘It’s a bit of a shame that we don’t get more evenings together,’ Nina confides, ‘but that’s my only complaint – otherwise it’s fine.’

She has also made a film called Make Me Happy, A Monkey’s Search For Happiness, in which she explores the wacky world of alternative therapies. As a mother of two young children, Nina fears she is slowly but surely turning into a nagging mum – always anxious, always worried. She wants to feel more herself, more secure, more at ease with her stage in life.

So, with Monkey in tow (acting, as ever, the Devil of doubt), she sets off on a quest to experience all manner of therapies New Age ‘therapists’ have to offer: naked yoga, laughter therapy and the like. All this she does in search of inner calm and happiness. And does she find it? Well, I wouldn’t want to ruin it, but I can say she finds herself on a Scottish retreat at one point, enduring primal screaming and ‘rebirth’.

It’s most amusing but really quite unusual, too. Very ‘Nina’. As she has shown through her quirky revival of this treasured art form, what is weird can be wonderful too.

Make Me Happy: A Monkey’s Search For Happiness is on BBC Four on 17 June at 9pm. Her live show, Dolly Mixtures, will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, from 1 to 27 August: 0131-556 6550.

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