Morgana Robinson interview: 'I've been picked on all my life'

As the all-star sketch show Psychobitches’returns, Morgana Robinson talks about her extraordinary rise from London hot-spot 'door whore' to TV’s top female impressionist – and why white men still rule comedy

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The Independent Culture

It is not easy interviewing Morgana Robinson. Ask the comedy actress/impressionist a question and there is no guarantee who will answer it. It might be Robinson, but it could just as well be Stephen Merchant, Daphne du Maurier, Sonya from EastEnders, Vic’n’Bob, Sophie Dahl or Robinson’s mother. These are just some of the people who crop up, vocally, during one exhausting, hour-long encounter. There are also stock characters – posh lady, luvvie, gay fan, critic, lad etc – who make themselves heard. Add to this the fact that for the whole hour, Robinson is having her hair and make-up done – all lovingly applied lashes and blond extensions – and you start to wonder, who is the real Morgana?

Sometimes, even the 32-year old is not  sure. “When you do an impressions show by the end of filming, you’re like, ‘Oh, bloody hell, that’s what I look like. Jeeeeesus.’ You forget,” says Robinson. For the record, she is tall, blond with cartoonishly big eyes and a comical mouth. After our interview she will put on a catsuit and holographic high heels to pose clownishly in the hotel bar for the photographer before changing into psychedelic leggings and a gold glittery top to lark about some more in the street.

The Robinson voice is an ever-shifting thing. The other week, she found herself speaking more plummily than usual; she had been working on a Joanna Lumley impression for two weeks and couldn’t shake her off. “They do stick with me a little bit. I sponge.” In the rare minutes when she is not doing someone else, there is a hint of the estuary from her London childhood, the occasional posh vowel from her years boarding at Benenden and a whiff of the luvvie. She is also quite outrageously crude – “I was literally pissing out my arse” being a typical turn of phrase – and likes to cut words off midway through. “I’ll get into trubs”, “Not on purps”, “I didn’t have to audish”, that kind of thing. Perhaps when you spend your life learning the speech of others, you have less energy for your own. Certainly, she would rather sound like anyone but herself. “Me, talking about myself? Worst nightmare. No. Hide behind character, silly wig, stupid words. Hell, yeah. I’m more nervous about doing this interview than I would be doing my own show.”

In 2009 Robinson was a poor art graduate, working at the West End restaurant Roka when she plucked up the courage to hand her showreel – “Just me, sitting on my sofa bed, in a wig” – to John Noel, one of her favourite regular diners and, crucially, agent to Russell Brand. He signed her the next day and within a year she was had The Morgana Show on Channel 4. In 2012 she starred in Very Important People, impersonating everyone from Adele to Russell Brand, and won Best Breakthrough Artist at the British Comedy Awards. In the past year she has appeared in Big School and Drifters, played Vic and Bob’s randy neighbour Julie in House of Fools (she’s now filming a second series) and has popped up in Toast of London, twice – in the first series as young Hoxtonite Jemima Gima and in the second as an ageing American soap star. “I came back as a different character!” she says proudly. “How epic is that?”

Her chameleon skills get another showcase in the new series of Psychobitches in which she plays Aphrodite, Daphne du Maurier  and Anna Nicole Smith among others. In the show, famous women from history are put on Rebecca Front’s psychotherapist’s couch. So in that vein, what made Morgana the woman she is today? The kind of actress who straps down her breasts (“Tape or clingfilm. Painful.”) and shoves a foam sausage down her pants to play Frankie Boyle? Why would anyone do that? “To say, ‘Whoooah! I’m someone totally different.’”

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Robinson as Anna Nicole Smith in Psychobitches

Morgana Robinson was born in Australia to a nurse and paramedic and spent the first three years of her life in Shepparton, Victoria, before moving to London. Her mother called her  Morgana after a girl she met when she was travelling around Europe aged 18. “Been picked on all my life. Morgue, Morgabe, Morticia, the works. Now I love it, but it’s nuts.” When she was 12 years old, her life changed dramatically when her adopted father discovered his biological, and very wealthy, family. Aunt Jilly insisted that Morgana be sent to Benenden School. “It’s a strange concept, isn’t it? Have some children, get someone else to bring them up,” she snaps. She hated it, not least because the teachers didn’t encourage her comedic leanings. “They liked the Shakespearean girls, the ones doing all the sonnets and soliloquies. I was like, ‘I’m going to do an impression of Miss Steven, ha ha ha.’”

There were more revelations to come. Around 10 years ago, Robinson discovered that her father had been “a naughty boy” and that she had half-siblings scattered around the globe. “Two in Oz, one in London, one in LA. It’s like Soho House, darling.” Her brother, an athlete, is in Australia. As for her sisters – the “modern-day Mitfords”, says Robinson, though they are arguably more extraordinary – one is in a cult in the Queensland Bush and the other is Brody Dalle, a rock star who lives in LA and is married to Josh Homme, lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age. They met for the first time at a gig in Brixton 10 years ago and are now “inseparable when we’re together”, says Robinson. “We have the same nose.” She no longer sees her father – “It’s easier that way. He’s difficult, and I just prefer it.”

Robinson had a slow start. She studied sculpture at City & Guilds in south London but, a fan of the figurative, she did not fit in. “They would rather you shit in a can and sculpt your face out of that.” She stopped wanting to be an artist when she started laughing in lectures and graduated with a 2:2.

So began the waitressing years – eight of them. She worked as the “door whore” at three high-end London restaurants, earning £37.50 for the 5pm to 1am shift, and developing varicose veins. Once she was the coat girl at the Christmas party of the PR supremo Matthew Freud. “All of them came in – Lily Allen, Jemima Khan and I was like, ‘Oh, whatevs. Not fussed.’ Then Ronni Ancona came in and I went hot pink...”

When Noel signed her she had nothing on her CV. “Not even an advert, not even am-dram.” What did he see in her? “Raw talent!” Robinson says, affecting a thespy voice. “No. I think you have funny bones and it can’t be taught.” Within months, championed by Shane Allen (then head of Channel 4 comedy, now at the BBC) who said she was “reminiscent of Kenny Everett in his prime, but without the beard”, she had her own show.

“I totally snuck in the back door. Sooo cheeky”, she says. “Normally in a career you get to go up gently and get your experience slowly. You can really brew… I’d never been on a TV before. I was very, very nervous and anxious. They were expecting the world when I clearly couldn’t deliver, realistically. I got a hard time.”

The reaction to her 2010 debut, which featured off-key impressions of Fearne Cotton and Cheryl Cole and characters like Gilbert – think Ricky Gervais’ Derek but teenaged – got mixed reviews. “As funny as a hernia,” said The  Independent. “That one made me cry. Ouchy. Really hurty.” Would she still defend the controversial Gilbert? “To the grave. He’s my favourite. He’s not someone I conjured up for the sake of a sketch show, he’s been part of my life since I was 14. I used to do him for my friends and they loved it. They preferred Gilbert to me. He still gets a stocking at Christmas.”

Very Important People cemented her reputation as an impressionist, to her surprise. “I’m not a natural mimic. When I got my show, it wasn’t my number one pash.” To nail a person she watches them on YouTube, until she is “literally crying blood”. She gives a voice two weeks, “and then if there’s nothing – no seed, no sprout – then I give up. I get flustered if I can’t change my face to look like someone.” Most recently she has failed at Stephen Merchant and Kirstie Allsopp. Has she ever bumped into anyone famous who didn’t like their impression? “There’s always burkas, darling. That’s how I get about. I’m joking.”

She would much rather create characters than be boxed in by impressions of others, but she is, she says, terrible at writing. “Absolutely bugger-all structure – that’s why I get other people to do it for me. I’m good with characters and concepts but then I’ll have to get someone in to bump up the jokes.” She feels far more at home in comedy than when she started. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Of course it’s a competition – especially with women. At the moment, I always say, being a woman in comedy is like being black or gay, right? There’s only room for a handful of us. White man still ruling. But things are changing, slowly. ”

She is now filming Woody, Kayvan Novak’s new sitcom and is “messing around” with Harry Enfield. She is also planning her own BBC show and hopes that her old heroine Ronni Ancona might appear in it. Haven’t you usurped her as TV’s premier female impressionist? “I guess so, yeah. But not on purps. She can have the impressions back. I just want to do silly characters…” Expect far more voices, wigs and foam sausages to come. “I know that comedy is my pash. Every so often I’ll think, ‘Maybe I should just do something where I look pretty, something serious where I can do a cry?’” she pouts prettily. “And then after about 10 minutes I think, forget it. I want jokes.” 

Psychobitches’starts on Tuesday 25  November at 9pm on Sky Arts 1

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