Impressions and politics have been inextricably linked since 1960, when in Beyond The Fringe, Peter Cook broke fresh ground disrespecting authority by mimicking prime minister Harold Macmillan at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. It can be a popular mix too: Mike Yarwood 1977 Christmas show hooked 21.4 million viewers, still a record for the biggest audience for a light entertainment broadcast.
Yarwood’s politics never went beyond superficial mockery though. And shows like Who Do You Do? and its 1980s revival Copycats were only light-hearted variety, acknowledging celebrities rather than biting satire. So it was left to Rory Bremner to redefine the genre when he first arrived as a Fringe performer in the early 1980s, delivering impressions with a point.
“It wasn’t a conscious reimagining,” says Bremner. “It was just where my interests took me. I began to put my impressions to the service of an agenda which was becoming much more political, an attempt to understand what was going on, and to satirise what I felt was the folly around us.”
In the decade that followed, Bremner was part of the Spitting Image team “that brought punchy satire to the mainstream. And I think we’re missing that now. Satire to some extent needs grotesques. And in that respect, this period is closer than any to the 1980s. Thatcher was grotesque, Reagan was to an extent. And now Trump, Boris, Erdogan and Assad, to some degree, Theresa May and Jacob Rees-Mogg, these are all grotesques lending themselves to pantomime satire.”
He says that until the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, politics was dominated by dry economics,the financial crash leaving impressionists with few real characters to sink their teeth into.
Indeed, Jan Ravens – sharing the bill with Bremner at the Fringe this year – suggests that the reason the UK’s longest-running impressions show, Dead Ringers, was on hiatus between 2007 and 2014, was because “all the bland men were in charge and nobody was very interesting. Impressionists were thinking, ‘We’re screwed here.’”
Luckily, says Jon Culshaw, her long-time Ringers castmate (making his Fringe debut in conversation with producer Bill Dare), “the pace of news today is such that whereas we used to do quite a few sketches on The Archers, there’s much less of that now because there’s so much news to report on. And you can’t do a gentle Watercolour Challenge parody when the world is in meltdown.”
Bremner quips that Brexit Britain can only move to WTO rules once we get our heads round the world’s WTF? rules. “With Trump, if anyone else had paid a porn star $130,000 before an election to keep her quiet, that would end their campaign. But for him, it’s just Tuesday.
“Obviously, Trump and Boris have great comic value as pantomime figures. But it’s dangerous to create a space where the likes of them, Rees-Mogg and Farage are allowed to be clowns. Your impression almost has to put the facts back in. The politicians are writing our material so fast that comedians struggle to keep up.”
Matt Forde, who boasts one of the best-known Trump impressions, agrees that no-one should be beyond parody: “People are excited about seeing the powerful lampooned and impressions are a way to cover the ground quicker in making them look foolish. But it’s important to expose the tricks and verbal tics they use to hoodwink the public.” Impressions serve as “a psychological assessment, breaking down exactly what they do and why”.
Moreover, the public is demanding this insight, he says. “I’ve been coming to Edinburgh for God knows how many years now, putting on shows where I’ve impersonated politicians, trying to convince people it was this rich landscape, full of bizarre individuals. And it’s only been in the last two or three years where I’ve felt audiences agree with me. Trump and Brexit have tuned them in.”
The latter also threw Theresa May into the spotlight. And Ravens, who bemoaned May’s low profile and lack of opinions as home secretary, is just one of several female impressionists to benefit from the increased prominence of women such as Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson, Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton.
“When it was Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and George Bush, I had to focus on newsreaders, there weren’t enough women making the news,” she reflects. “There’s been a big change and Theresa has been an undoubted gift for me. Much as she’s a gift I’d like to send back.”
As all male impressionists have their Trump, any female mimic worth her salt has her May. But the younger generation aren’t wedded to satire.
Naomi McDonald makes her May breakdance, “because it’s about pushing the boundaries of what you can do with them as characters, by making them slightly absurd”.
Jess Robinson, likewise, suggests any voice she can do “is only six degrees of separation” from the Prime Minister. “That’s a fun section and she’s fair game,” says Robinson, a performer best known for pastiching singing divas.
Such unifying figures, if not outright scapegoats, remain important. Unlike when Yarwood perpetually “did” Frank Spencer, Alistair McGowan has said that today’s impressionists can no longer rely on audiences sharing a collective notion of who’s famous, modern viewing habits having diffused our experiences of the world.
“If I’ve got 100 people in, I don’t know how many of them have watched Love Island,” says Luke Kempner. “I’ve got a Peaky Blinders sketch in my show. But I have to really explain it because maybe only ten people have seen it.”
Kempner – a go-to Trump for Radio 4 – learned this lesson with his hit touring show sending up Downton Abbey, when fans would bring partners along with no interest in the stately home saga. Where once the likes of Bremner and Ravens, and
McGowan and Ronni Ancona were paired on television, so now are he and Robinson. Both stage-school-trained with a background in musicals, they mash up high politics and popular culture next to the old guard on shows like the upcoming impressions panel show The Imitation Game and That Was The Week That Wasn’t, the latest effort to emulate Spitting Image, with digitally doctored footage instead of puppets.
“People forget that Spitting Image was as much about Steve Davis and Paul Daniels as it was politicians,” says the show’s producer, Bill Dare. And impressions have always enjoyed a mixed reputation: “Like a spesh act from the 1970s,” reflects Culshaw; “a trick, but a bloody good trick” argues Bremner; or “a fraudulent thrill,” offers Forde, “like watching someone forge a painting or use a stolen passport”.
Despite their chameleonic nature, impressions haven’t always adapted and evolved. Still, there have been such disparate showcases as Stella Street, The Secret World, Tracey Breaks The News and, most beloved recently, The Trip, with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.
“Like a live show, you can see the virtuosity,” enthuses Ravens. “There’s no smoke and mirrors there, just a person changing themselves in front of your very eyes. It’s hugely appealing.”
Most importantly, in an era of so-called fake news, impressions remain a bellwether for politics.
“We have a little section where we throw it to the audience to see who they want me to do,” says Culshaw. “For the longest time, the first name would always be Trump. But that’s starting to change now. It’s good to see who’s in an audience’s minds. Though I don’t know what it means that they’re starting to ask for Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove.”
• Rory Bremner and Jan Ravens are at Underbelly George Square 13-19 August, 3:30pm. Jon Culshaw and Bill Dare are at Gilded Balloon Teviot 13-26 August, 1:30pm and Pleasance at EICC on 25 August at 10pm. Jess Robinson: No Filter is at Assembly George Square Gardens until 26 August, 8:30pm. Luke Kempner is at Pleasance Courtyard until 27 August, 4:45pm. Naomi McDonald: Stardumb is at Fireside until 14 August, 3:45pm.