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Lasting Impressions:
Jon Culshaw on Dead Ringers

Can’t tell you how much I love doing comedy interviews where I get to excerpt a bit of the material to illustrate the points, and how much more I love it when it’s satirical comedy that involves ‘funny voice’ characterisation. A version went to air June 26 2004 (and again, edited, on June 27) on ABC NewsRadio. The transcript that follows is from the longer broadcast version.

You can hear the interview by subscribing to Radio Ha Ha (paste this link in your podcatcher: http://podcasts.2gb.com/radiohaha.xml. It appears in Episode 8.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

PHIL CORNWELL as a Presidential Aide: Great news, Mr President!
JON CULSHAW as President George Bush: I get to play Dumbledore in the next Larry Potter movie?
Presidential Aide: Ah, no, Sir, no, not from Warner Brothers; we still haven’t heard back from them yet, Sir, no. It’s from the U.N. Our weapons inspectors are going in.
President George Bush: And why should I be interestificated in that?
Presidential Aide: Because we need a report, Sir, before we invade Iraq.
President George Bush: No we don’t! Besides, we’re not invading Iraq. We’re invading Tiraq. Take a look at the survalence pictures.
Presidential Aide: Sir… Sir, that’s not ‘Tiraq’, that’s ‘Tie Rack’; it’s a store in Britain that sells ties.
President George Bush: That’s just what they want you to think. You see, they’re called ‘Tie Rack’, but they also sell cufflinks and underpants. And are we meant to acceptify that it’s mere coincidenecification that they lurk in every airport and rail station.
Presidential Aide: Sir, if we invade Tie Rack, you’re going to be a laughing stock.
President George Bush: You mean I have a choice?

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: Jon, like many great English comedies, Dead Ringers began on the radio. How did you originally get involved with it?

JON CULSHAW: There’s a guy called Bill Dare, who used to produce Spitting Image, the satirical puppet show, in the late 80s and through the 90s. After a while, he just thought that on BBC Radio 4 – you know, that station of the shipping forecasts and such things – he thought that that was ripe territory for doing an impression show, where you could parody all the programs and announcers and newsreaders on Radio 4, and Radio 4, being quite a very serious and very British station, hadn’t really quite had anything like that before and it just became this huge thing. People really took to it and it all seemed to work and that sort of evolved into the TV show, really, over a couple of years. But we still do do the radio show, because it started there, and we’re very fond of doing the radio version of the show.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you approach it differently when you have to do it for sound rather than for sound and pictures?

JON CULSHAW: Yes, I think we absolutely do. There’s a slight change in the writing. We can do lots of visual gags that don’t require any words – you can just achieve things with a look or in more of a subtle way on the telly. You can feature all of Tony Blair’s mannerisms or Ozzy Osbourne’s doddering around. You can have fun with that on TV.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Prime Minister Tony Blair: People of Great Britain, we are now entering the third phase of New Labour – relaxed forehead, open hand gesture, caring bald patch. The first phase was making this party electible. The second phase, laying down the foundations for growth. The third phase begins when my people receive the signal and travel the millions of miles to this planet. And after enslavement, we, the Cyberons, will rule the earth for a thousand, million years.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: The approach of the writers and the approach of the actors changes when you’re doing for radio rather than for television. Does the approach of the audience change?

JON CULSHAW: I think the radio version of this show, Radio 4 being the sort of station that it is, people like to listen in the kitchen in that very intimate listener-and-radio station sort of way, and people think almost that they’ve discovered the show on their own. You don’t get that on BBC 2. The two versions of the show are quite different, but the style of the humour is the same. It’s quite mischievous. It was once described as ‘part , part Beano Annual’, and that’s quite nice. It’s just got its own sense of humour and voice.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as newsreader Michael Buerk: Liza Minelli has just defended the Picasso-faced pop freak, Michael Jackson, saying the singer did nothing wrong by dangling his son out of a sixth storey hotel window. But there is the suggestion that she may have been influenced into making the statement by the fact that that Jackson was hanging her out of a sixth storey hotel window at the time.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: When you’re setting about trying to master an impression of someone, how do you go about it?

JON CULSHAW: You just have to get yourself a reference. Russell Crowe’s an interesting character because, with every movie that he’s done, he plays a completely different personality, and his voices changes with that, but you just have to watch and… it’s a bit like learning a language, I suppose. You know, you watch, listen and repeat, and just see what strikes you, see what makes the essence of that person. What will make that person, that character, recogniseable?

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Russell Crowe: People misunderstand me. They think the only thing Russell Crowe’s about is stealing other men’s wives and brawling at awards ceremonies. Which is nonsense. Because I’m quite happy stealing other men’s fiancés and brawling in the street as well.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: Is there a rivalry between impressionists? Do you ever find that you’re competing with someone else to sort of ‘nail’ the impression of someone who hasn’t been done yet?

JON CULSHAW: Rivalry? I always think that there’s plenty of room to manouvre. Plenty of shows, plenty of characters. Lots of different ways of interpreting one character. Different impressionists observe different aspects about Tony Blair, for example. At the end of the day, when you’re only doing funny voices, you can’t be overly precious about it, I think. What you want to try and do is your interpretation of character – make it the one that everyone recognises as ‘that’s the one’.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Michael Parkinson: It’s a very typical bus stop, I know, but what was it about this particular bus stop that drew you to-to want to take a seat here and wait for a bus today I this way? Don’t know? Don’t know. Just had a certain ‘bus stop’-type charm, I suppose, didn’t it? It attracts a lot of people here. I mean, have you ever taken a seat at a bus stop that you felt wasn’t quite right for you, and that you had to move on from quite quickly after that? Did that happen with the great Muhammad Ali, Spike Milligan, or the late Gene Kelly? No, I did on many, many occasions, and fine fellows they were, too.

© Jon Culshaw

Demetrius Romeo: Who’s your favourite impression that you do, and why?

JON CULSHAW: They change. They change quite often. I love Ozzy Osbourne, because I just love the world he seems to be in, it seems to be a sort of ‘happy land’.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Ozzy Osbourne: Yeah, it’s true, Kirsty, y’know we faked a lot of stuff over the years, y’know. That picture of, like, Big Foot in the woods, that was me still pissed trying to find me ’otel at ’alf passed six in the mornin’. The loch ness monster, that was just Kelly havin’ a swim, I think. The next thing we know it’s 1969 and we’ve got Robert Kennedy on the phone, talkin’ about the Russians winnin’ the space race, so we agreed to fake the moon landin’s for ’im, y’know.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

JON CULSHAW: I like Russell Crow, because of the grit that he’s got. And I do admire him as an actor, I think he’s a superb actor. You know, you walk a little taller when you playing Russell Crowe.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Russell Crowe: Was I a violent kid? No, I don’t think so. Um… Back home, the school playground was a rough and ready kind of place, and I remember one time, I was no more than twelve or maybe thirteen, and at that age, nobody likes to get a funny look and so what followed was a particularly nasty scrap which must have gone on for about thirty minutes or more, and I emerged from that beaten and bloodied but victorious. And I tell you somethin’ that koala thought twice about ever lookin’ at me funny again.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

JON CULSHAW: The first character I ever did was Patrick Moore, the astronomer. I think he’s in his 80s now, and he’s certainly not the healthiest he’s ever been, but he’s still going. But he’s just one of those wonderful, rich characters, one of those old fashioned eccentric English [as Patrick Moore] “experts who knows all about the movement of the planets”. [As himself] He was the first character that I noticed as a school kid.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Patrick Moore: People often ask me, “Patrick”, they say, “why have you been so very, very fascinated by the night sky for the last sixty years,” and the answer to the question is, I’m not! No, not in the slightest. You see, fifty years ago, the local constables came a-knocking after numerous complaints from my neighbours, wishing to know what the dickens I was doing with fifty telescopes in my loft. Well, thinking on my feet, I of course told them I was an astronomer. And they bought it, as did the BBC. But the simple truth of the matter is, I’m actually peeping tom.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: Amongst the characters you do that we recognise, like Tony Blair and George Bush and Russell Crowe, you do this fellow called Michael Buerk that has no meaning to us in this country, because he’s newsreader in England, and yet he’s still hilarious. How do you account for that?

JON CULSHAW: That is very interesting indeed. Since the show has been shown in Australia and on BBC America as well, there are characters who, as you say, you might not know who they are, but there’s just [as Michael Buerk] “something inherently funny about them”. [As himself] A newsreader who switches from his mafia part time job, I suppose it must be that the people that we take off have enough character and enough about them which allows you create a comic angle on them which just becomes a funny character whether you know them or not. I’m glad he becomes funny, even though you don’t know exactly who he is.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as newsreader Michael Buerk: … And you better gimme back that two hundred quid and fast. Bad time to get on the wrong side of me, sunshine. I’m Michael Buerk. Churchill was named yesterday as the winner of BBC 2’s Great Britains Poll. But after a number of legal challenges and a last minute recount of votes, a surprise new winner has been announced.
JON CULSHAW as President George Bush: This is such an honouratitude to have been named the Greatest Britain. I would like to thank everyone who voted for me, and my brother Jeb who helped count the votes until he got the right result. To have beaten candidates as talented and varicose as Princess Diana, one of the finest naked mud wrestlers the world has ever seen, Winston Churchill, the man who revolutionorated stair-lift design, and Isambard Kingdom Brunell, inventor of the microwave can opener, is nothing short of astonisherating. But this will not change me. I’ll just keep on doing what I always have done, putting all the votes for Wilbur Shakespeare throught the big shredder on my table.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: Thank you very much.

Jon Culshaw: All right, all the best, Dom. Thanks again.

And, of course, the soon-to-be-published FilmInk version.

Start ticking off the characters you like most on Dead Ringers and – Phil Cornwell’s Michael Caine and Jan Ravens’s Germaine Greer aside – it’s a dead cert that almost all of them will be the work of Jon Culshaw: quintessential impressions of George Bush, Tony Blair, Rolf Harris, Russell Crowe, Dr Who, Michael Parkinson and Ozzy Osbourne, to name but several. Part of the reason Culshaw is so good is because he has been doing impressions of people all his life. Indeed, astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, whom Jon describes as “one of those wonderful, rich, old fashioned, eccentric English experts”, was the first character he ever ‘did’ as a school kid, and he still ‘does’ him to this day.

Culshaw’s break-through impression was that of Conservative Party Leader William Hague. Adopting Hague’s “flat Yorkshire monotone”, Jon decided to phone British Prime Minister Tony Blair while on air. Fooling Downing Street staff, he amused even the Prime Minister by telling him, as Hague, that he’d “managed to get that Cher exercise video that Cherie wanted” and that he’d “drop it off at Question Time.”

As the name suggests, ‘Dead Ringers’ is this generation’s Spitting Image. The grotesque puppets have been replaced by the comics themselves, dressed as the people they’re sending up, but the satire hits is mark as surely as ever. Described as “part Private Eye, part Beano Annual”, Dead Ringers was the brainchild of producer Bill Dare who, like Culshaw, had worked on Spitting Image. However, the show began on radio, where it continues to this day while appearing concurrently on television. “There hadn’t been anything that took the piss quite so severely as Ringers did on the radio,” Jon reports. “It became this huge thing; people really took to it. That evolved into the television
show over a couple of years.”

On radio, the spoof phone calls proved popular. They continue on television as ‘candid camera’-type stings that see Culshaw as Dr Who, harassing shop assistants, or, as Michael Parkinson, asking innocent by-standers at bus stops if they’ve ever waited for a bus with “the great Muhammad Ali, Spike Milligan, or the late Gene Kelly.”

Interestingly, even personalities unknown to Australian audiences come across as funny. Newsreader Michael Buerk, for example, despite being the award-winning journalist who broke the mid-80s Ethiopian famine story that led to Live Aid, really is meaningless in this country. Yet Culshaw’s portrayal of him – delivering a mafia threat before delivering the news – is a cack. Jon agrees that there are characters who “have something inherently funny about them which allows you create a comic angle; they become funny whether you know them or not.”

Jon Culshaw claims that he has no one ‘favourite’ impression – the favourites keep changing. However, he’s particularly fond of Ozzie Osbourne at the moment because of the “happy land” Osborn seems to perpetually inhabit, that makes people react “so warmly” to him. He also likes the “grit” of our Rusty: “he’s a superb actor, and you walk a little taller when you play Russell Crowe”.

Series One of Dead Ringers featuring the Christmas special and pilot episode is available now on DVD from Village/Roadshow.

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