I tried my hand at the next gig thing

The hottest tickets at the Edinburgh Fringe are, oddly, for ventriloquists' shows. Jonathan Brown has a go

I'm sitting in the front room of John Kimmons' home in Sheffield.

A wooden coffee stirrer is lodged between my teeth as I mumble through the alphabet attempting to gain some semblance of lip control and master the tricky labials (B, F, M, P, V and W) that have spawned a million "gottle o' geer gags".

My right hand is sweating profusely, jammed as it is up the latex posterior of a green-faced, goggle-eyed purple monster of unspecified provenance – one of whose hands is secured to my left nipple by a magnet. It is not a relaxing feeling.

Welcome to modern ventriloquism. Twenty years after Orville and his curly-haired partner Keith Harris were toppled from their television perch in a flurry of green feathers, and a few months after the little-noted death of the once-celebrated Ray Alan, a new wave of practitioners of this ancient and strangely unsettling form of entertainment is experiencing one of the most unlikely showbusiness resurgences in recent years.

At this year's Edinburgh Fringe there will be no fewer than three ventriloquists selling out some of the best venues, and a nationwide tour, a film and at least two television shows are expected to follow. The two leading British talents are Nina Conti and Paul Zerdin. They will be joined this summer by David Strassman, whose stadium gigs are more like rock concerts than comedy shows, and the 2007 winner of America's Got Talent, Terry Fator, who has his own show in Las Vegas.

John Kimmons is one of the country's leading professionals. Having appeared on Britain's Got Talent, he has a busy schedule of theatre and cruise appearances and lectures on the subtle mysteries of the "vent". He has agreed to help me learn what it takes to master the art. A former magician and children's entertainer, he has found a growing market for his talents and those of his chief sidekick Charlie Clifton – named in homage to Andy Kaufman's creation Tony Clifton.

His route to the top has not been easy. At his first gig 15 years ago he admits: "I was gripped with embarrassment and felt completely stupid. Like a lot of things in life, what had seemed fun in the privacy of my own bedroom felt completely ridiculous in front of a group of strangers." It is a feeling I am getting myself even before an understanding audience of one.

Ventriloquism is an illusion, I am told. The first trick is to bring the puppet to life – giving it weight and movement and stopping it twisting into unnatural positions. From here you can start building your character, giving them movements or gestures, and some tics to augment the personality of the rubber doll on the end of your fist. The most important skill is acting. A top vent must be able to play two roles simultaneously, learning to interact with the puppet and adopt the right expression when listening. When trying to talk without moving your lips it is easy to look startled or merely blank – giving that tell-tale slightly creepy look.

Only when these disciplines are mastered can you work on the ventriloquism itself. To this end, explains John, it is necessary to remember what he describes as the "ventriloquism triangle" – clarity, volume and lip control. More of one means less of the other, so the louder you get the more your lips move, or conversely the less visible your mouth movements the less clear the sound that comes out. It is starting to feel a little bit like riding a bike, patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. Now all I have to do is be funny. "As long as the character is believable the audience will forgive your poor lip control. But they won't forgive you if you don't make them laugh," he adds ominously.

Rada-trained Nina Conti, 35, daughter of the actor Tom Conti, surprised herself as much as her struggling fellow thespians when she swapped the Bard for a stuffed monkey. Her show Talk to the Hand features a cast of four and an improvised routine in which the dolls pit their wits against the audience.

"I am so glad I did it," she says. "Paul Zerdin and myself are in demand. Things are better. When I started there was always a bit of shifting and wariness from the audience when I took out my puppet. There is something about ventriloquism that if you have seen it and it has not been good, or you've seen it in a horror film, it leaves a heavy stigma."

Conti, who has a film out next year chronicling her recent tour of the US and is developing a chat show format with one of her characters, says the acts are now more sophisticated. As well as Monk the monkey, her cast of characters includes a passive-aggressive owl of dubious sexuality; a matriarchal granny; and Lydia – a character in search of a character. While Conti – or at least Monk – has a reputation for pulling no punches, she has cut back on swearing so her young son can see his mum at work. "It will still be there but it won't be the meat of my act," she said.

Ventriloquism has its origins in Ancient Greece. In the middle of the 20th century Britain had 400 ventriloquists plying their trade. Television made stars of Keith Harris and Ray Alan but by the turn of the millennium the number of professional ventriloquists in Britain had fallen to 15.

Despite this, Paul Zerdin, 36, has been in the public eye since 1996 when he won ITV's Big Big Talent Show. Inspired by the Muppets, he has been "venting" for 20 years, performing for high-rollers in Las Vegas and troops in Afghanistan. A headliner at London's Comedy Store, he will perform his Sponge Fest Revisited for 11 nights at Edinburgh before going on tour and hopefully, making an ITV pilot.

"You can be the greatest ventriloquist but without the comedy you are nothing," Zerdin says. He recalls having met Harris, now forging a second career with an "adult" show, Duck Off, but remembers he, "wasn't very nice to me". He says: "People now have to be a bit edgy, the language is more colourful. You can talk to a woman or a bloke in the front row where they are talking back to the puppet. It is really about pointing out that what you are doing is ridiculous and taking the piss out of it."

Other Fringe Attractions

*The Beautiful Burnout

Already being touted as this year's Black Watch, Bryony Lavery's new play immerses the audience in the highly physical world of a Glasgow boxing gym.

*Bo Burnham: Words, Words, Words

He's only 19 years old but the American comedian is already a YouTube sensation thanks to his politically incorrect, satirical songs. Now he makes his eagerly-awaited Fringe debut to rows of swooning teenagers and curious adults.

*En Route

Tickets are selling fast for this interactive theatre piece. Adventurous audience members are led around the streets of Edinburgh with only an iPod for a guide as the performance unfolds all around them.

*Doc Brown: Unfamous

Fast becoming the word-of-mouth must-see of this year, Zadie Smith's little brother makes a fine Fringe debut with stand-up and comedy hip-hop.

*The Invisible Dot Club

A journey to a secret location is always a good bet for a sell out. The Invisible Dot, home to last year's Comedy Award Winners Tim Key and Jonny Sweet, takes up residence in a mystery maritime location for one night only

*Stewart Lee: Vegetable Stew

Even without the very public war he's been waging with the Edinburgh Comedy Award panel over the last few weeks, Stewart Lee's stand-up is always a Fringe highlight. See his television material first.

Chosen by Alice Jones

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders