AS a revealing BBC4 film showed recently, it is Monkey who knows all Nina Conti’s secrets, so Aidan Smith was disappointed when he didn’t show up to this interview.
But it turns out that Conti’s alter ego is never far away…
IHAD my intro all worked out. It was going to be along the lines of how, unlike Princess Diana, I was perfectly happy at there being three of us in this relationship – me, Nina Conti and her puppet – but she hasn’t brought “him” along.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “but we’ve just flown back from holiday – me, my husband, the boys and Monkey – and I didn’t have time to unpack the crate.”
We should assume it’s Monkey, also known as Monk, a gloomy synthetic chimp who frequently refers to her as a “halfwit”, that travels boxed-up; although with ventriloquists you can never be too sure. As Conti says over coffee during a break in rehearsals for her new Fringe show: “Stan, my other half, now gets a fair bit of Monkey from the woman he married.”
Maybe the last time you saw her was in her funny, sad, revelatory film Her Master’s Voice. In it, Monk went everywhere. Conti would be walking down the street, every inch the glamorous woman, but – and this might sound like sexual stereotyping – instead of an expensive handbag on her shoulder there was Monk. Does she ever get the chance to take the bag?
“Of course. On this holiday Monkey came, too, because it involved work – I went to a ventriloquists’ convention in Kentucky and then my documentary got shown at a New York film festival. But he doesn’t really infiltrate my life … except that when I’m with our son Drummond, who’s 18 months, which is most of the time, he’ll have to be close by. A little song usually stops the crying on car journeys.”
This is typical Conti. She’ll start out very definite about the puppet’s role in her life, the clearly marked-out boundaries, only to redraw them seconds later. Here’s another example: “I mean, I don’t take him to Budgens … much as I’d like to, because when I’m talking to him that’s funland, a fun place to be.”
The way she amends her conversation, which can often amount to a complete contradiction, it’s like she’s talking to herself. And, when you think about this, that’s what ventriloquists do. “If I’m on my own, I’ll speak to Monkey to generate new stuff for the act,” she continues. “I mean, I don’t do it for moral support, although I wouldn’t say that’s out of the question. In fact, I could do it, I might do it … yes, I think I should actually start doing it more.”
Conti, 38, is from a Scots showbiz dynasty, the daughter of Tom Conti and Kara Wilson, and the resemblance to her mother as a young actress, but also her father when she smiles and her dark eyes crinkle, is striking. Growing up in London, she’d visit Edinburgh for family holidays. Then she’d come for the Festival; in 2002 she made her Fringe debut. A decade on, Dolly Mixtures expands her strange and alluring world with five new puppets.
“All of them are versions of me – as a young girl, worrying about death, worrying about sex becoming history. Here, I’ve created this incredible Adonis who thinks I won’t ever need a facelift, that I’m wonderful as I am, ha ha. I suppose with this show I’m trying yet again to understand why I continue to build a fortress of grotesque characters around myself. Is this to prevent the world getting to the real me? Is there a real me?
“It’s psychoanalytical in a way, but it’s also a romp. I’m trying to sound all deep and meaningful about what’s basically a comedy, and you should never forget that Monkey is a stinky little puppet who’ll make a knob gag at the earliest opportunity.”
Just recently, Conti almost got psycho- analytical in a very big way. “I looked into studying psychoanalysis, wrote to the governing body and was about to start the year where they psychoanalyse you, four times a week, before you get to do it yourself. I just thought I’d taken the ventriloquism as far as I could. My act is so deconstructive and I’d made all the monkey jokes anyone wanted to hear. But in the end I decided to keep going. A close shave for psychoanalysis, methinks.”
Conti, and Monkey, were re-energised by the trip to an earlier Kentucky convention which formed the basis of Her Master’s Voice, where the fortress walls came tumbling down. The film – screened on BBC4 earlier this summer – began with her determined to honour the memory of theatre maverick Ken Campbell, always described as her mentor, by taking one of his dolls to a home for retired puppets. But during a conversation with Monkey on a motel bed it became apparent that Campbell was also her lover. “You had a relationship with him,” said Monk, “with sex and everything … he was 60, you were 26.”
It was reported that her father didn’t know this, and neither did her husband, Stan Stanley, the stand-up comedian. Conti shrugs, adding that her old man probably guessed and that her hubby approved of her choice. Then there was the confession – also on the bed, substituting for a head-doctor’s couch, with Monkey asking the questions – that some years before she’d had an abortion. Which led her fake-furry friend to inquire whether he was a child-substitute.
“That’s absolutely what Ken would have said, but I think it was just coincidence,” says Conti, who has two sons by Stanley. I tell her the film was brave. She says it had to be honest, adding: “All that stuff was easier, coming from Monkey, rather than me. And it’s pretty telling that it did, I think.” But she was the one saying the words. “Well, Monkey was interviewing me. My puppets are the worst for that because they know all my secrets.” Yes, but Monk isn’t real. “I think everyone else realises that except me!”
Conti had always wanted to follow her parents into performing. “When I was very young, mum and dad would throw these fabulous dinner parties and I was supposed be asleep under the table – except it was so exciting among all the legs, listening to the chat, cigar smoke wafting around.” Guests included Arthur Miller, John Candy and, thrillingly when she was nine, David Bowie. “I forbade my friends from listening to his records because I wanted him all to myself.”
But what kind of performer would she be? She tried conventional acting, but it wasn’t for her. “I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, having worked with Ken before and deciding I didn’t want to do his weird plays anymore. When I heard he’d got into ventriloquism I was convinced I’d made the right decision. But then I started to miss him.
“The RSC didn’t like my voice and they made me do stupid stuff like announcing to an empty room that I was wonderful using a lusty theatrical timbre. I moaned to Ken about this and he said, ‘I’ve got the very thing. Promise you’ll try it.’ This was my ventriloquist’s starter kit, it was exciting and the puppets enabled me to express myself in a way I hadn’t been able to do before.”
In the film – she wants to make more, as part of a genre she’s just dreamt up called “journiliquism” – Campbell’s voice from beyond the grave is heard describing how education guards against insanity but that ventriloquist dolls allow access to the madness of those operating them.
“I love that quote,” she says, “and I pledge my work to it.” So is she mad? “I hope, a little.” What of the fascination with psychotherapy? “Oh I’ve got that out of my system … I mean, it’s still there, 24/7.”
It’s a shame I haven’t met Monkey today, and I’m really glad I did.
• Nina Conti: Dolly Mixtures is at the Pleasance Dome until 27 August. Today, 8:30pm. Conti also performs at The Scotsman Best of the Fest at Assembly George Square, Monday, 6 August, 2:15pm. See panel, right.