And now for someone completely different! Impressionist Jon Culshaw on why he is looking on the bright side of life in Monty Python's Spamalot
09:10 GMT, 17 August 2012
King for a day: Jon Culshaw is playing King Arthur in the hit show Spamalot on the West End stage
Jon Culshaw’s advice is to always look on the bright side of life.
That’s the song he sings on the West End stage in his role as King Arthur in Spamalot — given a global boost this week, along with all matters Pythonesque, when the show’s creator, Eric Idle, led the singing of it at the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games.
Jon has always been a Monty Python fan. ‘It’s the first programme I fell off the sofa laughing at,’ he says. ‘I must have been five or six. I loved sketches like the Upper Class Twit of the Year on an assault course; the surreal quality of it.
‘Eric’s a fabulous man: wonderfully inventive and sharp, and charming and self-deprecating, too. He’s a wise chap. He obviously worked out a long time ago that there was no need to become all grand and float off the edge of the planet.’
He laughs. ‘Having said that, he plays God in this production, although via a pre-filmed sequence — or divine osmosis as he calls it.’
Singing Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life is ‘a particular thrill’, Jon says. He alternates with comedian Marcus Brigstocke in the role.
‘I’m really enjoying the luxury of playing just one character — the polar opposite of sketchcomedy. Though there are moments when I find it hard to resist slipping into a favourite impression. There’s one place in the script that cries out for Ricky Gervais; another when Elton John usually proves irresistible.’
He’s never counted them, but Culshaw reckons he must have enough celebrity impressions to be able to perform a different one every day for a year. At 44, he is Britain’s most gifted mimic, adding to and subtracting from his repertoire on an apparently daily basis.
‘It’s rather like sand dunes,’ he says. ‘As some of the older characters are no longer centre stage in public life, so they slip down to the bottom of the pile.
‘There goes George Bush. There goes Tony Blair. At the same time, new ones are added to the top of the heap: John Bishop, Professor Brian Cox, Michael McIntyre, Alan Carr, Kevin Bridges…’
Of the current crop of politicians, he’s keen on Michael Gove. ‘If you listen, he’s got a sort of Larry Grayson quality to his delivery. Then there’s Boris, of course. Quite bonkers. Bah! And Clegg’s funny in an overly measured kind of way. Talks a lot. Doesn’t say much: “Openness. Change. Fairness. Openness. Change. Fairness …”’
Spamalot was given a boost this week when Monty Python's Eric Idle performed the hit song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life at the Olympics Closing Ceremony
What about the Prime Minister ‘Well, I think it would be possible to do an accurate impression of David Cameron. It’s just that no one would care. He’s a wee bit anodyne.’
Culshaw describes himself as ‘a placid, relaxed sort of a chap’. And it’s certainly true that face-to-face he’s mild-mannered to a fault. But behind the easy smile there lies an acute observer of other people’s foibles, which he seizes on with devastating effect. If The Impressions Show were on at the moment, he says, he’d have a field day with Ed Balls.
‘I think I’d have him as a dodgy salesman sitting on the bonnet of a second-hand Ford Mondeo offering a discount,’ he says.
And he couldn’t have been more pleased when William Hague rose again and Jon could revisit ‘that extraordinary Yorkshire monotone overlaid with parliamentary formality’. As for BBC business editor Robert Peston, the mere thought has him chuckling merrily to himself.
‘Someone said the other day that his vocal delivery is a bit like listening to a long-playing record melting in the midday sun. Perfect.’
Jon Culshaw takes on the persona of grumpy Gordon Ramsay. He says there are moments when he finds it hard to resist slipping into a favourite impression
Culshaw describes himself as a placid, relaxed sort of a chap. Seen here mimicing Bruce Forsyth alongside Debra Stephenson as Tess Daly
Jon discovered his gift for mimicry at school in Ormskirk, Lancashire. ‘I must have been about eight or nine, and I could take off all the teachers.’
After school, hospital radio gave way to a job on Viking Radio in York. But it wasn’t until a particular phone prank on London’s Capital Radio that he hit the headlines.
So accurate was his impersonation of then Tory leader William Hague that Culshaw was put through to Tony Blair himself when he rang Downing Street on air.
But his mistake was to address Blair by his first name rather than as Prime Minister. ‘I quickly sensed that he’d clocked it wasn’t the real Hague, but that he was enjoying playing along with the joke. ’
It proved a turning point in Jon’s career. ‘I later heard that Blair had been a bit fed up that some MI6 spook, listening on an extension, had pulled the plug on the conversation,’ he laughs.
The two men have never met although Jon did once bump into Euan, the Blairs’ eldest child, at a Radio 1 event. Did he impersonate father in front of son ‘I tried not to, but I caved in briefly under great duress. It made Euan roar with laughter.’ Given his uncanny ability to skewer his ‘victims’, it’s surprising he hasn’t had more run-ins with any of them. Eamonn Holmes seems to have been the only one.
Fabulous darling: Jon discovered his gift for mimicry at school in Ormskirk, Lancashire. I must have been about eight or nine, and I could take off all the teachers, he says
‘Oh, but that’s long resolved,’ Jon says. ‘We laugh about it now.
Five sketches over five weeks played on the Irishman’s physique and appetite. So, we’d see him standing at the Chelsea Flower Show — but minus the flowers. He’d mistaken them for his lunchtime salad. And where was that nice Frankie Dettori whom Eamonn was meant to be interviewing
‘Oh, the little gingerbread man,’ he said, clearly having devoured him at one swift sitting.
As week followed week, the joke for Mr Holmes began to wear a bit, well, thin. The result was a legal letter to the producer of The Impressions Show.
‘I was a bit surprised when lawyers got involved,’ says Culshaw now. ‘But I think he wanted to make his point at one remove, through a third party. Then, of course, someone leaked the story and it turned into a bit of a palaver.
‘But, look, that quickly blew over. We’ve seen each other many times since, and we’re the best of mates. In fact, not long ago, we were both at a lunch for the Television and Radio Industries Club (TRIC) where Eamonn handed over the presidency to me.
Not listening! Jon, pictured here taking off Harry Hill, is currently reworking the format of The Impressions Show with Debra Stephenson
‘He said: “Having seen his impression of me, there’s no one’s neck I’d rather wrap this medal round than Jon’s.” Everyone was laughing, including the two of us.’
So who makes Culshaw laugh ‘I love John Bishop’s observations. And Sarah Millican is wonderful: she can get away with quite risqu jokes because there’s always that twinkle in her eye. ’
Jon is currently reworking the format of The Impressions Show with Debra Stephenson. ‘When it returns next year, it will be in the form of a chat show, with Debra and me playing all the guests.’
Jon lives alone in London’s Belsize Park and likes little better in his spare time than pursuing his love of astronomy. He hates talking about his private life.
Let’s flip forward ten years: where would he like to be professionally Jon doesn’t hesitate. ‘I’ll have been playing Doctor Who for three years by then. Truly, that would be my dream job.’
Spamalot is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until September 9. For tickets, call 0844 871 7627 or visit www.spamalot2012.co.uk