Tag Archives: Basil Brush

Nina Conti’s amazingly intelligent new film on Ken Campbell and on herself

(This blog was later published on the Chortle comedy industry website and by the Huffington Post)

I have always been a bit wary of ventriloquists. What’s with the talking-to-yourself bit? Ventriloquists are a bit like glove puppet performers. They are surely self-obsessed loonies.

But, then, maybe all performers are.

My wariness of glove puppet performers was never helped by stories of Basil Brush‘s drinking habits and Rod Hull and Emu’s antics off-stage… nor by the wonderful Muppet Show performers staying in character when they walked around ATV’s Elstree building. You would get into a lift to find two grown men with puppets on their arms, conversing to each other through the puppets and in the puppets’ voices.

Always a tad unsettling.

But I like eccentric and interesting people. And self-obsession, though it can sometimes be wearisome to sit through, can be fascinating.

Ventriloquist Nina Conti‘s documentary Her Master’s Voice – she wrote, produced and directed it – mentions Friedrich Schiller, who referred to the “watcher at the gates of the mind”, which can stifle creativity.

To be unconventional – to be creatively original – often means being criticised, which no-one much likes. So, in most people, Schiller’s ‘watcher’ tends to dismiss original creative ideas out of hand to avoid rejection.

The people who can ignore their ‘watcher’, though, can be genuinely original creatives.

I only encountered that extraordinarily influential connoisseur of eccentricity and ringmaster of alternative theatrical eventism Ken Campbell a few times. He was around the TV series Tiswas when I worked on it; he attended a movie scriptwriting talk I attended; and I once went with comedian Malcolm Hardee to see one of Ken’s fascinatingly rambling shows at the National Theatre in London. Malcolm admired Ken greatly, but found the show too rambling for his taste and he needed a cigarette, so we left during the interval and never came back. I would have stayed.

As its climax, the recent Fortean Times UnConvention screened Her Master’s Voice, Nina Conti’s wonderfully quirky new love-letter documentary to Ken Campbell.

Films are, by their nature, superficial.

In a novel, you can get inside someone’s mind.

In a film, you only see the externals of a person and you can only get some semblance of psychological depth and what someone thinks if they actually spell it out in words. One of the few films to get round this problem was Klute, in which the central character talked, at key points, to a psychiatrist.

Another way of pulling the same trick, of course, would be to have as the central character a ventriloquist who talks to their doll.

That is what Nina Conti very successfully does in this film.

Ken Campbell inspired Nina to become a vent by simply giving her a Teach Yourself Ventriloquism kit and, as he did with so many other performers, continued to inspire and advise her throughout his life.

Ken’s life was, it is said in the film, about “playing God with other people” – a phrase that might also be used to describe the mentality of a ventriloquist.

But, after ten years as a successful comedian/vent, Nina decided to give up ventriloquism and was summoning up the courage to tell Ken about this when she heard of his death via Facebook. She inherited his vent dolls and, with her own Monkey doll and six of Ken’s “bereaved puppets” she went to the Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky – bizarrely held in a fairly dreary model by a freeway.

The result is an absolutely amazingly insightful, highly intelligent and surprisingly emotional look at ventriloquists and at Nina herself. She is able to externalise her thoughts by talking to the vent dolls on screen… there is a genuinely shocking and insightful revelation in the movie about the ‘birth’ of her doll Monkey.

Ken Campbell believed that “creativity and insanity are almost the same thing” and the doll “gives us access to the insanity of the ventriloquator” while Nina says she thought she was bland as a person but the birth of Monkey gave her “an extra dimension”.

When psychologists and psychoanalysts meet vents, they must feel as if Christmas has come early and, interestingly, the book which Nina takes to read while on her trip to the Convention is Problems of the Self by Bernard Williams.

This is an astonishingly successful film with three possible endings, all of them on-screen. Nina manages to turn the ultimate ending into a happy one but, before that there is another possible ‘out’. When I left the screening, three people were still crying and highly emotionally upset over (I presume) that earlier ending.

Which well they might be.

This is an extraordinarily successful documentary.

Her Master’s Voice.

Watching someone talk to themselves has never been so interesting.

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Filed under Comedy, Psychology, Theatre, Ventriloquism

Why I am very confused about gay sex

So, as promised, after my blogs about drink and drugs… sex.

Gay sex

Last week, someone was telling me about a friend of theirs (whom I have never met) who thinks she is gay but is not absolutely certain.

This always comes as a mystery to me.

I don’t understand how people can be confused about their own sexuality.

If you are a man and you get a hard-on looking at some boy band perform then, I would say, you should know you are gay.

If you also get a hard-on looking at a bouncy girl band, then the odds are that you are bi-sexual.

If you only get a hard-on looking at a bouncy girl band, you are heterosexual.

It seems easy enough to me.

I have never got a hard-on looking at any other male except, of course, Basil Brush.

The red fur. The voice. The bush.

I am not gay, but I dream of the fox.

Knowing if you are gay should be, I would have thought, easy.

Apparently I am wrong.

Knowing if someone else is gay, of course, is another matter and is the reason I am writing this blog, because I was told things about two showbiz people’s sexuality last week that made my figurative jaw hit the floor.

Of which more later.

I once worked with someone at London Weekend Television who appeared to be gay. When he arrived, everyone assumed he was but not with 100% certainty. Eventually, the uncertainty became too much for one production secretary who asked him outright.

He said he was not at all gay, but he had worked with so many gay men in the theatre and in TV Entertainment that their campness had, as it were, rubbed off onto him. He was not gay but he was slightly camp.

This was all the easier to understand because, at the time, there was a legendary and wonderful associate producer at LWT called Michael Longmire (now dead) who had such a camp voice, speech pattern and general demeanour that it was almost impossible to be in the room with him for more than four minutes without lapsing into his style.

“My deeeeear!” you would find yourself saying, “How could anyone POSSibly wear those two colours together. I mean, my deeeeah, it’s imPOSSible, just imPOSSible!”

He was a joy to work with because you could not POSSibly feel anything other than – well – uplifted in his presence.

Ooh matron.

He was born to work in Entertainment.

Campness and gayness, of course, are slightly different. Michael was both. The other person at LWT was slightly camp but not at all gay.

When I was at LWT, roughly the same production teams worked on the TV series Game For a Laugh and Surprise Surprise. Both were high-rating peaktime family shows.

I remember a humorous item was filmed for Surprise Surprise which included the ever-cuddly gay co-presenter Christopher Biggins being involved in a nude male centrefold photograph. The item was never screened because, after a long discussion, it was felt that the final edited item came across as too sexual for an early-evening ITV slot. It felt slightly tacky in a sexual way, not mass-appeal downmarket in a camp way.

Discussion rambled to a similarly sexually risqué item which had been shot on Game For a Laugh with co-presenter Matthew Kelly, who was also gay (although I am not sure if he had ‘come out’ at that point). The item had been transmitted without any problem on Game For a Laugh.

The conclusion reached and the reason for not screening the Surprise Surprise item was that, in an almost indefinable way, Christopher Biggins came across on screen as gay and Matthew Kelly came across as camp.

In family peaktime TV in the mid-1980s, gay was not totally acceptable but camp was, as it has always been a strong and totally accepted element in British entertainment.

Of course, it does not matter a… toss… if you are gay or not. But it seems to me slightly strange when people do not know if they are gay.

The difference between gay and camp I can understand though, logically, their acceptability should not differ. That too is slightly strange.

But to me much stranger still, in this day and age, is if someone pretends to be straight when they are gay or – even more bizarre – vice versa.

Of course, back in the Stone Age, when male (but not female) homosexuality was illegal, gay showbiz people had to stay in the cupboard or be arrested. But why bother now?

Michael Barrymore (before the swimming pool incident) damaged his career slightly  – not by being gay but by lying and saying he was not gay. He worried that his mums & grannies fanbase would not accept it; but he was wrong.

On the other hand, I suppose if ‘the’ famous Hollywood star whom everyone knows about really is gay, it might damage the credibility of his romantic scenes with female co-stars.

But John Barrowman in Doctor Who and Torchwood is totally accepted as a dashing, rather macho action hero; he is even seen as a heart-throb in a strange hetero way.

The two things which shocked me last week were both about men who were stars in their heyday, which has now passed, but they are both still living.

One I suppose I can understand. He was a rough, tough, macho action star in a classic TV series – much in the John Barrowman mode – and apparently he was camp as a row of tents (although he married).

Perhaps he was right and the public at that time would not have accepted him; it was slightly before the Game For a Laugh/Surprise Surprise incident, but only very slightly.

The other case is more bizarre, happened in roughly the same period as the height of the action star’s fame and in the same period as the Game For a Laugh/Surprise Surprise discussion. And it does my head in trying to understand the logic.

This second guy was a fairly prominent Light Entertainment star in the mid-1980s whose entire success was built round a gay persona. My dear, everyone knew he was camp as a row of tents. His every action screamed it out. His selling point was his campness. His entire act was his campness.

Except, apparently, he wasn’t and isn’t.

Apparently he was and is 100% heterosexual. Not gay. Not bi. Totally 100% heterosexual.

I had heard this before but could scarcely believe it. But apparently it is true. Why on earth he made this bizarre career choice at a period when there was a slight residual danger in being gay I cannot get my mind round at all. I know of one very major piece of damage which was inflicted on his career because his perceived gayness.

The act was not gay. It was screamingly, traditionally camp. But camp to such an extent he was assumed to be gay at a time when gay men (unlike John Barrowman today) were not going to be considered for definitively hetero roles.

Why did he decide to adopt the persona?

I cannot begin to fathom it.

As I say, there was one spectacular own goal as a result of it, which severely damaged his career.

I would say who he is except that, if he wants to pretend he is in the cupboard when he never had the key, who am I to ‘in’ him. Or whatever the appropriate phrase is.

What is the phrase?

I am totally confused.

Generally.

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Filed under Comedy, Movies, Sex, Television