The ventriloquist who found her voice: Tom Conti's daughter on how her affair with a much older man gave her the confidence to go on stage
22:53 GMT, 12 July 2012
Nina Conti, daughter of Tom Conti, with one of her puppets
When Nina Conti — comedienne daughter of actors Tom Conti and Kara Wilson — went on a course to learn how to make documentaries, she found herself among a pack of TV reporters being taught how to send dispatches back from the front line.
It wasn’t quite what she needed to know. ‘I was the only ventriloquist in the classroom,’ she says, deadpan.
It was a fittingly surreal start. While her fellow students donned helmets and headed for war zones, she packed up her puppets — bequeathed by a former lover — and set off to make a highly personal film.
With the dummies acting as her voice, she veered into disturbing territory, examining past affairs, heartbreak and even an abortion. Who knew puppetry could be so complicated
But her dark, soul-searching humour has brought her wide acclaim.
She’s about to perform in Australia, then it’s off to film in the U.S. before she spends August at the Edinburgh Fringe.
She will be showcasing a clutch of new puppets including a pitbull who is trying to escape his violent past, an old man based on her granddad, and a ‘little Nina’, a representation of herself as a child.
Weird Perhaps. ‘But perfectly normal to me,’ she says.
A softly spoken and self-deprecating figure, Nina, 38, was obviously influenced by her theatrical pedigree. But it was not her parents who encouraged her into showbusiness.
Nina met the late director Ken Campbell when she was still in her teens. He had written and directed a number of cult plays in the Seventies which had helped launch the careers of Bob Hoskins and Bill Nighy.
He was also a ventriloquist, and brought Nina into his world. When he died, in 2008, he left her his entire collection of dummies, including one modelled on himself.
For a little while they sat in her home ‘uniquely bereaved’, she says. Then she and they headed off to America to make her first film.
Her journey took her to the World Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky, where she hooked up with others ‘in this rather weird profession’.
Madcap it may have been — there was a surreal moment where she took her Granny puppet swimming — but there was nothing flippant about her resulting film, A Ventriloquist’s Story: Her Master’s Voice.
Ken Campbell, Nina Conti's lover who died August 2008, pictured with his two dogs and puppet Gertrude Stein
‘It was about Ken, and missing Ken, and making sense of what he had meant to me,’ she explains. ‘I suppose some of it was about trying to conjure him up again.’
What was not known at the start of her pilgrimage — she had never told her parents or her husband — was that she and Ken had been lovers, despite an age gap of more than 30 years.
‘Everyone knew what a big influence he was in my life, but I never told anyone that we were more than friends. I didn’t have the guts.’
Now happily married to fellow comic Stan Stanley, and a mother of two boys, she admits that she idolised Ken.
‘I loved him from the word go. I spotted him in his car in Hampstead, and I went up and said: “I think you are amazing.” He said: “I think you are amazing, too.”
‘I’d never met anyone like him. He was charismatic, funny, acerbic. I just felt lucky to be on the same planet as him. I wanted to be with him, simple as that.’
Father: Nina's dad Tom Conti as Len Milelr in Sky's comedy series Parents
The relationship didn’t become sexual until Nina was in her mid-20s, she says. And when it did, it soon grew ‘intense and difficult’.
She was the one to end it. ‘It couldn’t have lasted. When you are with someone as strong as that, eventually you start to wilt.’
They remained friends, although things ‘were never the same’ afterwards, and he even came to her wedding.
‘After he’d died, I got this box of his puppets,’ she says. ‘They sat in my house. They are strange objects when silent. Eventually I knew I had to give them a voice.’
Throughout her adult life, Nina has used puppets to explore her emotions. Before she discovered ventriloquism, she was ‘slightly bland, eager to please, falsely gauche’.
‘I could never be on stage on my own,’ she says. ‘But puppets can say things that humans can’t say.’
And on film, her dummies do just that — to powerful effect.
There is one emotional scene in her film where Monkey, her most famous puppet, asks if it is a coincidence that he came into her life when she was recovering from an abortion.
‘I did wonder if I had gone too far, so I took it out. But then the rest of the film didn’t seem to make sense, and I realised I had to keep it in.’
What did her family make of seeing her expose such private emotions like this
‘They have been incredibly supportive.
'I did tell them the truth about Ken halfway through filming. My dad wasn’t upset in the slightest. He had known what Ken meant to me. This didn’t change anything.’
Perhaps the fact that her parents were unfazed says a lot about Nina’s background. The couple’s life has long been described as ‘unconventional’.
‘It wasn’t exactly an open relationship, but they are more… French about these things,’ is how Nina puts it.
Has she followed their example with her marriage ‘Oh no,’ she laughs. ‘We are way too square. My dad is a much more flamboyant character than I am.
'I think that’s why I couldn’t see myself going into straight acting. I always just felt daft.’
As odd as it may seem, she seems delighted to have found her own voice — even it is via a pitbull on the end of her arm.
Nina Conti appears in Dolly Mixtures at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, August 1-27. Box office: 0131 556 6550.