mon 09/12/2019

Q&A Special: Comedian Jan Ravens | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Comedian Jan Ravens

Q&A Special: Comedian Jan Ravens

Impressionist talks about her funny voices and why she is involved with the Changing Faces charity

She was a member of Cambridge Footlights and directed the The Cellar Tapes, the revue whose cast included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson and which was awarded the first Perrier comedy award in 1981. Ravens is currently on tour in her first solo show, A Funny Look at Impressions, and on 5 October will give a charity gala performance for the Changing Faces charity, of which she is a patron, at the Lyric Theatre in London’s West End.

VERONICA LEE: You and Ronni Ancona are the top female impressionists. Why are there so few?

JAN RAVENS: Maybe it’s because women don’t like to be perceived as bitchy and you do need to have a certain amount of confidence to make pronouncements about the way other women present themselves. But I do think women have got to the point now where we’re strong enough to be able to laugh at ourselves and I believe I do it in a kind and caring way.

You compered the Funny Women awards recently and Eve Webster (who was runner-up) looks as though she may be coming along a treat...

She’s fantastic. It’s great to see a new young impressionist at last.

Do you think it's easier these days for women to make it in comedy, or has little changed?

I think not enough has changed. The idea that women aren’t funny is fostered by the idea that women finding something funny is somehow less valid than men finding it funny. It’s tough in the same way it’s tough in all sorts of other businesses, and particularly in an arena where a lot of the high-profile comedy is in competitive shows like Mock the Week. On the other hand I think there is a lot of goodwill towards women on the comedy circuit and recognition that there is a need for things to change.

Most people know you from Dead Ringers, but what was your background before then? Are you a trained actor?

When I was growing up I dreamed of being a "serious" actor and in among all the impressions I have performed I have performed in Twelfth Night and in a production or two for the RSC. I trained as a drama teacher at Cambridge and got involved with the Footlights as well as appearing in lots of university drama.

Being spotted by Jasper Carrott at the Edinburgh festival doing a show called Ha Bloody Ha and going on his BBC1 show was my first big break.Carrott's Lib

Did you prefer the freedom of Dead Ringers on the radio, or the greater effort needed for TV?

Both formats were great and both were massively fast-paced; we’d often create an impression and do it that day. But it’s not as different as you’d think. It always starts with the voice and even on radio you have to act the whole character, although obviously the audience can't see that. Sometimes you have to put a few more obvious clues into the script for radio, but the visual elements can make such a huge difference to how you sound that they come into play for both TV and radio.

Do you have to have a particular kind of voice to be an impressionist, or is it something that can be learnt?

I think some people have a natural talent for impersonation but it is an inherently human talent – we learn to speak, walk and behave largely by impersonation. I actually teach audiences how to do an impression in the show using part of the process I work to. For me any impression starts with listening to the voice: vowel sounds, consonants, tone, and then adding in the visual elements that can affect the voice so much.

Do you think an impressionist can get away with stronger/more cruel/more cutting material than a stand-up comic, or the other way round?

I think an impression is only funny if it’s true - however exaggerated. And actually sometimes impressions are borne out of admiration. I think of them as a real-life caricature, which only really embellishes what’s there in the person you’re impersonating. If they are cruel, it is based on the truth. Both forms of comedy can be cutting and impactful when they come from the truth – and funnier for it too, hopefully.

You have said your first impression was of your mother. Can you talk a bit about your childhood?

I grew up in the North West of England in Hoylake, in the Wirral. It was a very ordinary non-showbizzy childhood. My parents' main concern was that I didn’t get “two big for your boots, Janet”. I really wanted to be Glenda Jackson, who also came from Hoylake, but chubby cheeks and big blue eyes lent themselves more to comedy.

Doing impressions of my teachers and making not only kids but other teachers howl with laughter definitely gave me more confidence as a teenager. I was quite a shy, nervy kid.

How is the tour going? Tell us how the show is structured.

The tour is great! Being my first ever solo show, it is terrifying and exciting in equal measure on a nightly basis. It is a huge amount of work keeping it current in line with the headlines, but I am fairly well practised at that. The venues vary massively, which has been a real eye-opener, but Annie Cullum, my stage manager, and I have a great laugh together and have met some fantastic people at theatres all over the country.

The show is lots of my, and hopefully audiences', favourite impressions from Dead Ringers and some topical new ones too. I take the audience on a sort of tour of the whole world of impressions - stopping off at points of interest like"'how do you do impressions", "who did the first ever impression" and "is it good for us to take the mickey out of public figures?

Why has it taken so long to make your solo debut?

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages, partly because I’ve been busy with other things – personally and professionally - and partly because it requires a certain level of confidence that comes with, er, let’s say maturity.

It finally came about after I did a platform discussion at the National Theatre last June. It was called

Changing Faces, about the difference between portraying real people in topical comedy as opposed to drama. When I did it people seemed to find it quite interesting, because even though they'd seen a lot of impression shows, they hadn’t seen one that talked about it as a genre, technique, or issue. So I decided that I would extend it into a full-length show.

What do you do to keep your voice in good condition?

I try and drink plenty of water and I always do a full vocal warm-up before every show because my voice has to go through so many registers. I walk my mini Schnauzer, Thora, every day and I try and eat healthily.

You have appeared on Strictly Come Dancing (2006) and won Celebrity Mastermind (2008) - can an appearance in I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! be far off?

It couldn’t be far enough.

Talking of Celebrity Mastermind... why did you choose Daphne Du Maurier as your special subject?

I love Cornwall and her identification with it, both as a writer and in her own life, was one of the first things that drew me to her. The description of her first impressions of Fowey never fails to make me long to be there. There is an amazing amount of psychological complexity both in her books but particularly in her own life.

Sorry, obvious question, but who is your favourite impression?

Ellen MacArthur, because her heart is so on her sleeve. The fact that she's so terrified makes her seem even braver. And Thora Hird because she's so comforting. When I'm doing Thora, I feel everything's going to be all right. She's like a crochet-covered hot-water bottle in human form.

Is there an impression you have not been able to crack?

Not yet but there’s always a first… Judi Dench used to be hard as I was so in awe of her. Then she started doing M in the James Bond films and for some reason that "let me in".

Tell us about Changing Faces and why you are associated with it?

Changing Faces is a small UK charity that supports and represents people who have disfigurements of the face or body from any cause. The charity’s work includes; providing personal support for children, young people, adults and families; working with schools, employers, health and social care professionals to ensure a culture of inclusion for people with disfigurements; and campaigning for social change by working with the media, government and opinion leaders.

As a society we are obsessed with appearance and one of the greatest challenges I face as a satirist and impersonator is that politicians, "celebrities" and newsreaders increasingly look and sound the same! And all of us are busy trying to look as young, smooth and regular-featured as we think we should. People with facial disfigurements are at the cutting edge of this culture of conformity. Changing Faces celebrates difference. It challenges prevailing notions of beauty and does amazing work to rebuild people’s confidence about their appearance and to educate wider society about disfigurement. It is a real pleasure to be a Changing Faces patron and to play even a small part in the amazing work they do.

Is the benefit gig going to be the same format as your show, or will there be guests?

It will be the same format but every show is different depending on what’s happening at the time. And it will be special because we’re raising money for an amazing cause. Apparently the definition of gala is something involving sumptuous pleasure, so “Nigella”, “Fiona” and all my girls will be doing our best to make it as sumptuous as possible!

  • A Funny Look at Impressions gala performance is at Lyric Theatre, London W1 next Monday 5 October. Book here
  • Tour information

More information on Changing Faces here

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