East Finchley comedian Nina Conti on reinventing ventriloquy with foul-mouthed puppets

Nina Conti

Nina Conti - Credit: Archant

The death last year of Keith Harris catapulted Nina Conti to the heady heights of the UK’s foremost ventriloquist - barring Roger De Courcey of Nookie Bear fame.

Nina Conti. Picture: Matt Crockett

Nina Conti. Picture: Matt Crockett - Credit: Archant

With her foul-mouthed companions Monk and Granny the 42-year-old has postmodernly reinvented a faded genre more associated with Music Hall, and end of the pier variety shows than 21st century entertainment.

Conti’s latest show In Your Face continues to deconstruct and refresh the possibilities of ventriloquy. Almost entirely improvised, it features audience members wearing masks operated by Conti who puts words into their mouths based on a few gleaned personal details.

Despite an earlier aversion to improvisation, she’s noticed how much funnier things are with “real people”.

“I’d always lived in fear of improv and if you are talking about improvisation as someone standing on stage with an empty head and hysterical stuff coming out of their mouths - that’s impossible.

Nina Conti arrives at the British Comedy Awards at the Fountain Studios in London. Picture: Suzan/EM

Nina Conti arrives at the British Comedy Awards at the Fountain Studios in London. Picture: Suzan/EMPICS Entertainment - Credit: Suzan

“But I have created a context in which you can’t help but be funny.

“Someone being on stage not expecting to be there and not knowing what’s happening is a funny scenario. I put a mask on and everything they do I embellish and cartoonify. It’s impossible to do nothing because standing there and doing nothing becomes a statement - like with two brothers who didn’t move at all. It was actually very funny because it became a competition for the least movement.”

Most Read

Conti isn’t keen on her mask wearers being “overly helpful; flapping their wings or doing sexy moves”.

“It’s got to be normal and real. It doesn’t feel like too much of a pressure on me. It actually feels quite easy and fun.”

Looking back, she finds her previous routines “so scripted and dreadfully rigid”.

“I even knew what my face would be doing when the puppet was saying each line

When I was writing thinking of things to say seemed so hard but it’s as if I’ve flicked a switch in my head that’s let me off worrying about every sentence now.”

As the only child of actors Tom Conti and Cara Wilson, Conti grew up in Hampstead and did well at King Alfred School before getting a first from UEA. Although her parents hoped she wouldn’t follow them into the business, she became an actress and at the urging of mentor Ken Campbell picked up ventriloquy in 1999. Her BAFTA nominated documentary Her Master’s Voice revealed she’d also had an affair with the maverick performer 30 years her senior- confessing this fact through a conversation with her puppet.

“I was alone for a lot of the filming without an audience. It was a very private playground in which I fiddled at making a film,” she says.

The notion of the puppets allowing her to say the unsayable has been a running theme for Conti.

She has described herself as “eager to please, and bland” before the puppets unlocked a ruder inner voice.

“It wasn’t so much releasing a darker side of my psyche but they gave voice to the undercurrent that had always been there. I had a licenced mouthpiece that people enjoyed hearing. It was dissasociation of myself from what I was saying. Anything that separates us from our ego, or self consciousness is a wonderful release.

“Having to take responsibility for it is embarrassing, but having a monkey say all these things is not so embarrassing…well I do blanche a bit at what I have just said - we all know it’s me - but there’s enough of a remove to make it easier.”

Then she adds: “I don’t understand why people don’t’ talk out loud to themselves more, it’s supposed to be a sign of madness but you can make yourself laugh and no-one’s watching. It’s weird to bring that self consciousness into your own solo moments. That’s how ingrained we are in shame.”

It is this discarding of inhibition that affects her mask wearers. “They feel liberated because they don’t look like themselves any more and are getting all these laughs. It releases them from having to be in charge.”

But she adds hastily “I don’t want to over-intellectualise it. It’s daft and silly not high minded.”

Training as a giggle doctor in children’s hospitals for Channel 4 documentary Clowning Around was also “hugely informative” for the new show.

“Performing without the puppets made me feel exposed but clowning is a very basic form of finding what’s funny about you. You come up with something, test the water, like the hotter colder game when you are looking for something in the room. It’s only by the audience laughing or not laughing that you know it’s funny. It’s a really strong barometer.”

Living in East Finchley with comic husband Stan Stanley and their sons Arthur 11 and Drummond 5, Conti’s been writing an autobiography in hers and Monk’s voice...for a while.

“I’ve been saying this for some time, it’s still not finished probably because I don’t have a deadline.

“It’s a fictional autobiography where you won’t know what’s true and what isn’t. I’m probably even confused myself, like when you get used to a lie told in childhood and have a memory of that lie. Ken Cambell used to lie in his diary, he called it a liary.

“When something is fun and creative you don’t want it bogged down in questions of whether it’s true. The truth can come out of lies. Sometimes a story is a better way to tell the truth than endless reportage.”

In the meantime it’s unlikely we’ll see Conti retiring her beloved puppets - stand up isn’t something that excites her as a performer.

“I love watching other people do it, I should never say never but I don’t see me doing a show alone telling stories, having a mic, it’s not my bag. The puppets are more of the now. There’s no fourth wall; it’s all happening in the room at that moment.”

In Your Face runs at The Criterion Theatre from February 25 until March 12.