Jan Ravens talks to Jonathan Maitland for The Upper Room Winter Lectures

Image: Jan Ravens

The Dead Ringers impressionist will be talking about her career on Wednesday 24 April at 8pm at St Michael & All Angels Church

Listening to Dead Ringers on BBC Radio 4 at 6.30pm on a Friday night signals the end of the working week for me, and the beginning of the weekend. Me and millions of others.

The satirical comedy, which alternates with The Now Show and The News Quiz in the Friday night comedy slot, is the perfect way to unwind from the tensions of the week and ease into the weekend.

The huge cast of characters drawn from the worlds of celebrity and politics has been developed over nearly 25 years by the accomplished team of impressionists which includes Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, Duncan Wisbey, Lewis MacLeod and Debra Stevenson. Jan has been with the award-winning show since 2000, almost from the beginning.

“I didn’t do the first two programmes, but I did the second two of the first series of four” she tells me. And she has been doing it ever since. They are now on series 24.

Image above: Dead Ringers; BBC Radio 4

Sending up everyone from the Queen to Kirsy Wark

The radio programme was taken up as a TV programme, which ran for seven series and made her a well-known face, before it returned to radio in 2014. The team does eight or nine shows a year now, and in between, Jan is to be found on lots of quiz shows (Mastermind, Pointless, Eggheads and Richard Osman’s House of Games) and podcasts.

You can catch her on shows such as Just A Minute and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, on BBC Radio 4. Her stage work includes seasons at Chichester Festival Theatre, and a stint with the RSC.

She received rave reviews and broke box office records with her solo show Difficult Woman, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, in which she presented her portfolio of characters: Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Diane Abbott, Hillary Clinton and many others, including Kirsty Wark, Lyse Doucet and Fiona Bruce, and this was followed by a sellout tour with Rory Bremner.

She is currently writing a comedy drama for television, which is in development with Hat Trick.

“Liz Truss is the gift that just keeps on giving”

When she started her career in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher was prime minister – the first female prime minister, perfect for an up and coming impressionist, you would think, except that Steve Nallon had beaten her to it, developing his impressionist act by performing it on the northern Working Men’s Club Circuit in and around his native Yorkshire in the 1970s before finding a national audience on ITV’s satirical puppet show Spitting Image.

Did she resent him nicking the best female part?

“You can’t take it away from him. His Margaret Thatcher was brilliant. He became her.”

She was however the only woman on the first Spitting Image shows, so she got to do all the other women – Princess Diana and the Queen, Ann Widdicombe and Edwina Curry.

It is slightly unnerving how she lapses into their characters as we speak, capturing not only how they sounded, but how their voices changed over time.

“The Queen and all those women in films in the ’40s and ’50s, like Deborah Carr, sounded so high pitched. The Queen in her twenties sounded like she was on helium, whereas when she was older her voice got lower and more husky,” she says, dropping an octave, her voice becoming more husky.

“It’s lovely to veeseet at the time of yeah; we are so gled and heppy to be heah.”

Did she get to impersonate any of the men?

“I did Tom Cruise once on Dead Ringers, and Arthur Scargill – he was quite high pitched. I like finding characters as well as the tics in their voices [lapsing into Liz Truss]. Liz Truss always sounds like she’s out there, living her best life.”

Liz Truss is one of the most popular of her current characters.

“She is the gift that just keeps on giving. When she makes a speech, she always waits endless moments at the end of a sentence for people to laugh. She’s like a little girl whose daddy has told her she was funny, with that inane grin.

“Nadine Dorries is like a posh Scouser with a cob on.”

It takes one to know one. Jan describes herself as a “posh Scouser”, from the Wirral. Her Theresa May is legendary.

“She’s got that diplophonic voice – two voices, one beneath the other”, so she sounds like her voice has two concurrent pitches. “It’s why she coughed all the time when she was giving speeches at conference. It’s on your throat the whole time.”

She also portrays Priti Patel “droppin’ her H’s” and Suella Braverman.

“We thought Priti Patel was cold and extreme until Suella Braverman came along. She sounds permanently furious,”(sounding furious).

“With political impressions, what they say is as important as how they say it.”

“We can’t bring down the Government, but we can laugh at them”

Jan does not believe she has any political influence, and she says satire cannot bring down a government, but:

“What it can do is show what they’re really saying rather than what they purport to be saying.

“Satire provides a safety valve for our frustrations. It provides a laugh and by showing them from a different perspective, it tells people they don’t have to buy into it, we can laugh at them.”

She finds it interesting that teenagers have become interested in politics by watching comedy.

If Labour wins the next election, is she ready for the next crop of politicians?

“Everyone is longing for a change at the moment. It’s funny when a new government comes into power because you haven’t got the measure of them yet.

“Angela Rayner has that ‘can’t really be bothered’, ‘devil may care’ thing about her. Jess Phillips is naturally funny herself and clever, so she’s quite difficult to take the piss out of. Lisa Nandy has a lisp, which is not something you want to take the piss out of too much.”

Somehow I think Jan will rise to the occasion. Her talk with Jonathan Maitland promises to be a very entertaining evening, and The Upper Room, which supports homeless people, is an excellent cause.

Wednesday 24 April at 8pm at St Michael & All Angels Church. Tickets are free, but there will be a collection on the door.

Reserve a place here: The Upper Room Lectures, Jan Ravens

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