Ronni Ancona: Sometimes appearances can be deceptive

She made her name with alarmingly accurate impressions of everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Posh Spice. It's a talent that has won her a devoted following - but the hard part has been finding her own role in life.
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"Well, that's hardly surprising, is it?" she counters, with an embarrassed laugh. "Playing all these famous people doesn't exactly do fantastic things to your own character. Sometimes, I don't even know who I am any more, as if I've completely lost myself."

She issues a scatter-brained laugh here, sips at her coffee and then puts it down in favour of pulling awkwardly on a large circular pendant that hangs from her elegant, swan-like neck. But while the vamp image may have bitten the dust, what replaces it actually makes her more charming still. She appears to thrum with nervous energy, is incredibly self-conscious, and proceeds to chatter with such consistency that you'd be a fool to even attempt to interrupt her (she'll plough right on through regardless), as if thinking a dozen thoughts at once and attempting to give voice to them all simultaneously.

"Don't mind me," she says at one point, eyebrows arching. "I'm completely scatty. Really, I'm quite mad."

For the first 15 minutes, our conversation twists and turns all over the place. First, she quizzes me over my iPod: "Do you know how to make it work? I've got one of those Shuffle things, but I've no idea what to do with it. I'm a complete Luddite!" And then she wants to compare mobile phones, relieved I have the same model as her. "Somebody told me that it was so out of date," she says, and I reply that that somebody was probably right. Our Sony Ericsson is very 2003. She is appalled. "Oh, but I hate that! Isn't it terrible just how disposable our society has become?" Her jaw drops in shock, revealing teeth. She has lovely teeth.

And then, after we have changed location from the Almeida's canteen to a much quieter office, we start to talk about the play, about which she is very enthusiastic. She says it stars "proper actors" such as Henry Goodman and Kris Marshall, and that it is very funny. But her role as Beline both amuses and bemuses her. Beline, she explains, is a trophy wife: "And so God knows why they cast me! Let's face it, I'm hardly trophy wife material, am I?"

And why not, exactly?

"Well..." She looks confused, stumped. "I'm not totty, and I've never made one of those lads' mag lists. I don't even qualify for thinking man's crumpet. Not Carol Vorderman enough, I suppose. Which basically means I'll have to act my socks off, won't I?"

But then Ancona has been acting her socks off for some years now. Since 1999, she has portrayed, with often alarming accuracy, all manner of celebrities - Judy Finnegan, Audrey Hepburn, Victoria Beckham - on BBC1's The Big Impression alongside her former boyfriend Alistair McGowan. But while the programme was a commercial hit, bagging her a Bafta in 2003 for Best Comedy Performer, she remains convinced that few people actually rate her talent. f

"For some reason, people think that impressionism is the lowest form of comedy," she says, "but why? If you think about it, it's actually really hard. You have to do everything you would do in a regular comedy sketch show, but you also have to sound exactly like somebody else. Trust me, that's not an easy thing to do."

After she won the Bafta, she continues, one critic suggested that she'd managed it largely due to lack of proper competition.

"That hurt," she says. "It really did."

Nevertheless, it all did wonders for her profile, and she has been branching out ever since - into the theatre and cinema, increasingly leaving comedy behind in favour of drama. But, being the perennial worrier that she is, Ancona isn't sure if this represents a positive career arc or something of an insult.

"Well, if I'm not getting offered comedy roles any more, does that mean that I'm really not funny?"

Her eyes grow wide, and she delivers the mother of all pouts.

he Hypochondriac effectively represents the second phase of Ronni Ancona's career, separated from its predecessor by the business of having a child. Six months ago, the 37-year-old - who is married to a doctor and lives in London - gave birth to a daughter, Lily. She spent the first four months "doing nothing but breastfeeding and being mentally challenged by daytime TV. I rather went into full mummy mode," she says, "but I'm back now. I started getting itchy. You know, you work really hard in this business to build up some kind of respectability. You don't want people to forget about you, do you?"

Offers, she tells me, did come her way during her maternity leave but she felt compelled to turn them all down, a decision she has questioned ever since.

"Oh, but then I always do that. I'm absolutely hopeless with decisions! I never know whether to say yes to something, or no, or whether what I have said yes to was the best idea or, or..."

Breathlessly, she tells me of a recent sitcom she turned down, and wants to know from me whether I think she acted wisely. Given that the show, which she insists must remain nameless, has recently screened to almost unanimous critical derision, I tell her yes. She looks hugely relieved.

"Oh good, I'm glad, but it really is difficult. I was convinced people would forget all about me, and I didn't want that. I can't afford people to forget about me, if you know what I mean."

She says that, unlike so many of her peers, she has never made much money out of TV and that she and McGowan failed to acquire the rights to The Big Impression in the way that, say, Matt Lucas and David Walliams did with Little Britain (the DVD sales of which alone will make them millionaires by Christmas). And anyway, she adds, slightly piqued, McGowan always made more money from the show that she did.

"Yes, but that's another conversation for another time really, isn't it?" she says. "Don't get me wrong, I've never correlated money with success, but a bit more would have been nice."

She grows awkward here, and says that she wants to change the subject from money lest anybody consider her to be bitter. She is not bitter, merely rueful. And so we talk, instead, about motherhood, her natural ability at which came as a very pleasant surprise to her.

"I was terrified at the prospect of becoming a mother at first because I'm notoriously forgetful and clumsy," she says, "although I do think I'm a loving person as well. But I had awful visions of leaving this poor little creature behind in the shops alongside a bag of tomatoes. I'm delighted to say that hasn't happened yet, not even once!"

She is happy doing the theatre right now because it allows her to keep days free to spend with Lily, but she does ultimately want to get back to television and her first love, comedy.

"When we first started out, Alistair and I," she says, in reference to The Big Impression, "we were trying to make a comment about how society had become obsessed with celebrity, and so we parodied many things. The TV is a parody of itself these days, isn't it? We can only be days away from something like Celebrity Burn Your House Down, don't you think? And that's just sickening, I find. I don't have anything personal against people like Rebecca Loos or Abi Titmuss, but it does appal me that these women are being held up as role models by young girls. Seriously, Emmeline Pankhurst must be turning in her grave. To think that women died so that Celebrity Love Island could make Abi Titmuss more famous still! It's not right, is it? And what's the big deal with being a celebrity anyway? I never wanted to be one..."

orn in Troon, Scotland, Veronica Ancona's formative years were, she admits, pretty textbook for somebody who went on to become funny for a living. Of Jewish/Italian parentage, she describes herself as first a sad and awkward pre-pubescent, then the quintessential teenage loner who chose to idolise not Robert Redford or Paul Newman but Dustin Hoffman. She had few friends, and her only solace came in the discovery that she could make people laugh. After university, she became a technology teacher while dabbling in comedy at night. In 1993, she won the Time Out award for Best Stand Up and, shortly afterwards, got together with Alistair McGowan for The Big Impression. She has been working ever since and, consequently, is enviably successful.

"Successful?" she says, her face all frown. "I've never considered myself particularly successful, to be honest. I just go from one job to another and hope that people like what I do. I know that sounds wanky, but I'm not aware of myself as, you know, successful. Other people are successful; me, I just muddle by."

And in many ways, it suits her. Massive fame would terrify the poor woman, you feel. Indeed, the attention she has got so far in her career has already mortified her.

"Somebody asked me what it was like being called a sex symbol recently," she recounts, "and I just laughed out loud. Why? Because I haven't the faintest idea, that's why! Sex symbols, for me, are beautiful, groomed people like Cat Deeley and Rachel Stevens. I'm far too awkward looking."

But there are people for whom Cat Deeley f fails to raise a pulse yet who remain quite obsessed with Ancona. Specifically, they are obsessed with her breasts.

"Yes," she says with understandable awkwardness, "my breasts come up a lot, as it were. I wish they wouldn't, to be honest, because I'm terribly body conscious and I've always tried to hide the fact that I'm a big-breasted girl. And anyway, after four months of breastfeeding, there really isn't anything to celebrate any more. Apart from..." Here, she falters. "Actually, no, let's not get into that."

RONNI ANCONA has a recurring fantasy, and it is this: "I'd love to be cool, you know, one of those effortlessly cool women, but I don't think it'll ever happen. Instead, I'm one of those women who has a handbag full of a million things and her head in the clouds. It's a shame, really. I always wanted a certain - what's the phrase - a certain sang froid, or that other French one, je ne sais pas."

But, I tell her, somehow compelled by her self-consciousness to offer compliments, that she isn't doing too badly as she is. Not only is she the trophy wife in The Hypochondriac, but she is soon to be seen in a similar role on television, in the new Stephen Poliakoff drama, Gideon's Daughter, to be screened in January. Trophy wives, I say, are practically cool by definition.

"Do you really think so?" she says, beaming.

And at this point, a telephone goes. At first we think it's my mobile, but it turns out to be hers. Suddenly, she is rooting around the million things in her handbag, desperate to retrieve it.

"You never know," she says with mock excitement. "It could be somebody like GQ magazine calling to tell that I've become officially sexy at last!"

But, by the time she finds the thing, the caller has hung up. Sagely, Ancona shrugs her shoulders, smiling in brave defeat.

"Oh well, they probably reconsidered and are now calling Cat Deeley instead. Let's face it, she deserves it."

'The Hypochondriac' continues at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida St, London N1 (020-7359 4404), until 7 January 2006