Spitting image for the 21st Century! There's a biting new TV satire without a latex puppet or boring politician in sight
06:37 GMT, 13 April 2012
Morgana Robinson as a very convincing Adele on the new Channel 4 show Very Important People
For a moment, I think that the girl going off on one in front of me really is Adele. The face, the curves, the screech are all very familiar.
And with the setting — an imposing mansion standing in landscaped grounds — the imagery is complete. After all, she pays 15,000 a month to rent a ten-bed grade II-listed pile, and this seems to fit the bill.
But then I remember this is actually Morgana Robinson, a waitress-turned-actress doing a very convincing impression of Adele for a 21st-century version of the Eighties satire show Spitting Image.
This time, though, there are no
sculptured latex puppets controlled by wires and hidden hands. Adele
comes to us courtesy of the real Morgana, who is somewhere deep beneath
several layers of plaster filler, flesh-coloured paint,
industrial-strength cosmetics and a specially designed wig.
Advances in prosthetic make-up have made it possible to turn real-life actors into the famous characters they mimic.
But petite Morgana’s physical transformation into the singing star has not been easy, cheap or quick.
It has taken a team of highly paid specialists nearly 200 minutes to create ‘Adele’.
And as a final finishing touch, a
mansion in North London’s upmarket Mill Hill area has been rented for
the day to stand in for the real star’s home in Sussex.
new show, Very Important People, is to be screened by Channel 4. Its
star is 31-year-old Morgana, described to me by a TV executive as ‘like
comic Kenny Everett in his prime, but without the beard’.
hours earlier, at 6am, I’d watched Morgana in the make-up chair at
Elstree TV Studios. ‘It’s very fiddly, but I’ve got this weird face
which seems to morph itself into other people,’
Morgana sighed, as a third layer of Adele’s puffy right cheek is added to her face. ‘It will be red raw by the end of the day.’
Transformation: It took a team of highly trained specialists nearly 200 minutes to turn Morgana into the singer Adele
The real deal: Singer Adele holding her six Grammy Awards at the 54th annual Grammy Awards in February
These techniques were also being used on Morgana’s co-star Terry Mynott to turn him into an uncanny, but slightly thinner, likeness of Jonathan Ross, complete with elongated chin, curved nose and bouffant fringe.
Earlier in the week, the prosthetic specialists took four hours on their most dramatic makeover as Terry became Barack Obama to film a spoof chat show where the American President quizzed the singer Cheryl Cole, played by Morgana.
‘She’s always an inch away from crying so I used that quite a lot,’ Morgana says of her take on the singer.
Producers insist Very Important People is not trying to imitate the crude, attack-based humour of Channel 4’s last major impressions show Bo’ Selecta, which used comedy masks to portray unflattering versions of celebrities such as Craig David and Lorraine Kelly.
Instead, it will knowingly poke fun at the quirks of today’s current crop of A-listers who, let’s face it, take themselves far too seriously.
VIP: Morgana impersonates Helena Bonham Carter complete with her signature messy hair and unusual outfits she has become renowned for
Easy targets like Britain’s Got Talent judge Simon Cowell, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay — who will both be satirised in a hilarious sketch about a charity anti-bullying campaign — and Hollywood actress Jennifer Aniston will feature heavily.
On set today, Adele is being portrayed as foul-mouthed and impatient when she is unable to be understood in day-to-day situations because of the strength of her distinctive accent — a mixture of her early years in North London and growing up in South London.
She even makes the rude hand gesture Adele gave when she was peremptorily cut off by the TV cameras at the Brit Awards in February. How’s that for realism
‘She gets disconnected by the man who has come to install her Sky TV and she gives him the finger,’ Morgana explains.
‘In the end she has to sing everything to get what she wants because nobody understands her speaking voice.’
I can’t imagine the feisty singer will be happy with this portrayal.
But Morgana, who is fast becoming the toast of the celebrity circuit herself, shakes her head defensively.
‘It’s celebrating Adele and who she is,’ she insists earnestly. ‘It’s very honest, but I think she’d be proud and love it. Besides, I think she has a beautiful accent.
‘We haven’t been nasty about anyone, it’s more silly and cheeky if anything. There’s not one person I’m worried about bumping into.’
So has she ever met any of the victims of her spoofs
‘Yes, Fearne Cotton. I met her with her parents. They actually came up and gave me a hug and told me how funny they thought my impression was. She was a great sport.’
However, they might not be so happy when they hear the show’s writers are considering filming a scene where TV presenter Fearne is sent to broadcast from the Gaza Strip to illustrate TV’s obsession with attaching celebrities to cover topics they know nothing about.
The show also features skits that expose the public relations tricks and endorsements which are all too common in the lives of many stars.
‘I do think the celebrity culture has gone too far sometimes and this show is a comment on that,’ Morgana says. ‘It’s about time somebody comes along and pokes fun at it.’
Morgana’s most controversial turn is as Kate Middleton, the only member of the Royal Family who made the cut to feature in the series.
Christine Bleakley: Morgana also performs several sketches as the daytime TV presenter
But Morgana, a former student of Kent boarding school Benenden, which was attended by Princess Anne, found The Duchess of Cambridge one of the easiest characters to play.
‘I went to school with all those girls and talked like Kate ten years ago,’ she giggles. The Duchess appears in a ‘cartoon-like’ sketch where Russell Brand, who is also played by Morgana, rescues her after a kidnap.
Doesn’t that risk controversy
‘The style in which the sketch is done is like Batman and Robin,’ Morgana stresses. ‘It wouldn’t be anything that reflects reality — it’s lighthearted and funny.’
Morgana has had a remarkable five years. Until she was 26, she worked as a waitress at Roka in London — an expensive Japanese restaurant frequented by the celebrities whom she now sends up.
But one chance meeting changed her life. She served John Noel, one of Britain’s most accomplished showbiz agents, who launched the career of Russell Brand, still signed to his agency, and Christine Bleakley, who dumped him by text message because he didn’t agree with her ill-fated decision to leave the BBC to join ITV.
Celebrity chef: Morgana pulls off Gordon Ramsay's signature scowl and ruffled bleach blonde hair
Perhaps it is not surprising Bleakley will be lampooned by Morgana on the show.
Noel spotted something in Morgana, who had handed him a copy of her showreel featuring home-filmed sketches, and signed her up in the nick of time — she had promised her worried mother she would soon ditch her dreams of becoming an actress.
‘It was really hard,’ Morgana recalls. ‘I waitressed for eight years. It’s soul-destroying.
‘I was so close to giving up on my dream so many times. Because I hadn’t gone to drama school, no one would touch me. But I told myself I would do it until I was 30 to see if I could get a job.’
But meeting Noel paid off. He signed her and, after bit parts in BBC1 sitcoms The Green Green Grass and My Family, Channel 4 agreed to make a trial series featuring her impressions called The Morgana Show.
When it went well the bosses then decided to give her the lead role in this new flagship impressions show.
Male lead Terry Mynott has an equally unlikely, and especially modern, tale of discovery. He made an internet video of his impressions which became a minor hit on YouTube and eventually found its way to Noel, who signed him instantly.
Mynott has an almost scientific approach to parodying celebrities such as Terry Wogan and actor Ian McKellen.
‘I will listen to them on headphones for a week before I even start to recreate the voice. Their voice has to get into your head,’ he explains.
‘Then I go on a long walk and start talking to myself in character. From that moment on, I keep talking as that person — I drive my wife crazy over the dinner table!’
But some stars take a long time to perfect. ‘It took me three years to get David Attenborough, and then it just came to me suddenly,’ he remembers.
Terry has 30 well-known figures prepared for the show, all male. ‘I was asked to do Susan Boyle, but I find doing women too hard,’ he says.
Wildlife presenter David Attenborough is also featured on the show
Now he’s back in Wossy mode, pacing up and down the hallway in the chat show host’s cocky style.
‘I’m a big fan of Jonathan Ross so I should apologise to him now I guess,’ he laughs.
In the U.S., the impressions on legendary variety show Saturday Night Live have remained a significant cultural reference point for the past three decades.
Comedienne Tina Fey’s brutal version of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was blamed for helping to derail her political career.
But the producers of Very Important People decided no British politicians were interesting enough to make the cast of the new series.
Not even London Mayor Boris Johnson — regarded as the UK’s most instantly recognisable political figure — has made it into the show. (Although he was considered, he was dropped at the last minute for being too bland.)
‘I think there are more interesting people to do at the moment. People would much prefer to see a sketch with Cheryl Cole than David Cameron,’ justifies Morgana.
Easy target: Morgana as X Factor judge Simon Cowell
‘I remember when Rory Bremner was doing impressions when I was younger and I would always think: “Ugh, why is he doing Tony Blair again” ’
Terry, who was going to play Boris, is even more blunt. ‘I steer clear of British politicians because they’re boring to do and boring to watch,’ he says.
Topical sketches will be filmed during the week of broadcast, so it is a possibility, albeit an unlikely one, that some politicians could still make the final cut.
Morgana harbours ambitions of being taken seriously as a character actress. She says impressions are ‘most definitely’ harder than playing someone fictional.
‘It’s really exhausting because you have to stay inside a box,’ she explains. ‘When I’m doing Sophie Dahl, I find it most difficult because I have to keep the pitch of my voice high enough while thinking about what to do and say.’
Morgana’s range of characters is particularly challenging because she also plays a number of well-known male celebrities. ‘Blokes really take it out of me,’ she admits. ‘The Russell Brand skit was especially trying because I was covered in stubble and had my boobs strapped down in a corset.’
She most enjoys mocking notoriously self-obsessed actress Helena Bonham Carter. Why ‘It’s as if she’s from another planet — a crazy world where anything can happen,’ says Morgana.
And with prosthetics providing Morgana and Terry with almost unlimited possibilities of who they can spoof, that sounds like a good way to describe Very Important People. But only the ratings will tell if it can make the same impact as Spitting Image did.
Very Important People premieres on Channel 4 on Friday, April 27 at 9.30pm.