The Radio Column: Liz Kershaw

The masters of impressionism
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The Independent Online

We shuffled into our seats and then watched in silence as, on the other side of the glass, the equipment was given a final once over and the lone leather chair a last dusting-down. The men in suits with walkie-talkies disappeared across the corridor where, in a separate room, their charge was finishing off his coffee and cookies. Then at the appointed time and dead on cue, he was led in. No one spoke. No one really looked at him. Everyone knew that soon it would all be over.

He remained throughout defiant, resolute and resilient, and at precisely one o'clock, lunchtime, he uttered his last words in opposition to the Government, and was gone. A small invited audience ­ including me ­ had witnessed William Hague in his final throes as Tory party leader, live on the Jimmy Young show. A week later, he resigned.

Oh, how hilarity can play havoc with your conscience. "I shall miss Hague terribly," Jon Culshaw from Radio 4's Dead Ringers tells me. The brilliant impressionist has made a living out of lampooning the leader, but "I do hope he didn't mind. I've always tried to be funny without being cruel. I hope he still has some kind of high-profile role, so he can stay in the show. It would be awful if he just slipped away". Culshaw then transformed into the new singing sensation he's come up with to save Hague. Funnily enough, "Billy Pop", as this new version is called, probably would sound that good after 14 pints.

Yes, Hague is a certainly a hard act to follow. But while the contenders for the Conservative leadership slug it out for a couple more weeks, Culshaw is quietly getting to grips with the rather grim line-up. Because whoever succeeds Hague, Culshaw's own success depends on swiftly making the right impression. So who is he tipping as the new top Tory? Widdecombe? Clarke? Redwood?

"Not Ann Widdecombe. Jan Ravens does her." Sorry. Widders is all woman, isn't she? "I quite like Ken Clarke. He reminds me of my old physics teacher. Slightly ruffled and batty. Loads of potential there. John Redwood could be played as a real baddy, a villain, a sinister timelord in Dr Who.

"But really, I hope it's Michael Portillo. Not politically. I don't know all that much about him. He's just the best character to do an impression of. He has the easiest voice. Kind of Clement Freud, but less nasal. And deeply statesmanlike. Never so high as to go all Dale Winton-like."

And he's so devilishly handsome, so much easier on the eye than his rivals, I suggest. "Yes, he has that sucked-in face, like he's eating tripe and vinegar. He looks like he should be modelling the latest range of underwear in a Damart catalogue," agrees Culshaw who, as a boy back in Ormskirk, discovered his talent for mimicking while taking off his Auntie Amy. But while Portillo has revealed that he was once what Lancashire ladies might have delicately called "a right Mary-Anne" his mannerisms are nothing if not completely manly.

"Mmm. Perhaps I should make him like Larry Grayson," muses a mischievous Culshaw. "Imagine 'Oh, just look at the muck in here!', Portillo-style."

So how else is Portillo making an impression? "I've notice that he's very good at not speaking his mind. Like the other morning, when all the journalists were doorstepping him and he just stood there with a fixed grin, and you wondered what he'd really like to say to them."

Perhaps Dead Ringers could give him the chance to do just that? "Yes, there's a thought. Instead of him saying, 'I think William fought a first class campaign', he could just blurt out 'Obey, Obey!'"

Does Culshaw himself create all the characteristics and scenarios for his roles? "It's a team effort. We all discuss ideas. Then the writers develop them, and then we interpret that and play around with the words to suit the character.

"For instance, in the pub we were all wondering why it was that Ffion Hague never spoke, and I suggested it might be because, being Welsh, she actually really sounded like Neil Kinnock. So they wrote that into the Election Special" (broadcast last Wednesday).

Jon Culshaw is so fond of the Hagues that "I want to make a half-hour documentary about him pursuing his passion for singing, through the seedy club circuit to him getting a record deal," he reveals, doing Hague doing Craig David doing Nelly Furtado doing William Hague.

I wonder if Culshaw would agree that William's way with words is weird, anyway. After the election, a bemused party worker from his Richmond constituency suggested that he'd failed to win popular support because of his Yorkshire accent. Yer what, love? Has anyone in real life ever come across anyone else in Yorkshire who sounds anything like him? "It is weird. He's like a Yorkshire dalek. His accent is so modified. So suppressed. Perhaps now his real voice will come out, and from now on in the Commons you'll hear him shouting 'Oh, shut yer gob!'"

In contrast to the subtle Scottishness of our PM? "Oh, he's very suppressed. All that hesitation and stuff with his hands. And the seriousness on his face. He's the closest thing to a human version of C-3PO. 'Mmm. Ass-ess si-tu-a-tion. Fa-cial ex-pre-ssion re-quired,'" continues Culshaw, in a voice that is robotic but still blatantly Blair. It's another real hoot, but what if you're on his hitlist? Has anyone ever taken offence?

How about Prince Charles? At a recent reception in the Palace, Culshaw took to the stage with a skit that would have seen him sent straight off to the Tower in less tolerant times. As he rocked backwards and forwards, grimacing and twisting his fingers, all eyes turned to our host. Charles was standing only feet away, also fiddling with his ring and, to everyone's relief, beaming and laughing.

"They love it. I love it. I've just done a pilot to be shown on ITV in July called Alter Egos, in which celebrities interview themselves. So I did Dale Winton with the real Mr Winton, and I interviewed Chris Tarrant as Tarrant."

Oh, here we go. Video kills another radio show. "No," protests Culshaw. "I've always said that I will always do the Radio 4 thing for as long as they want me."

We do. We do. Dead Ringers is back in August, with the first programme coming from the Edinburgh Festival. Plenty of time for the Conservatives to crown their new leader. And for Jon Culshaw to have perfected his Portillo.

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