Stan Hey: My wife does a pretty wicked George Formby

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The Independent Online

Touching as it was to hear that the late Queen Mother once entertained her great grandsons by imitating their favourite comic character, Ali G, I am also bowled over by the bizarre layers in this particular act. Some of you will remember that the waggish princes once tried to make their father seem more trendy at a Canadian press conference a few years back by getting him to wear a reversed baseball cap and striking a "rapper" pose.

Now we see the culmination of this cultural transfer within the royal household. We have a centenarian female royal imitating a 31-year-old white, Jewish, Cambridge graduate, who is imitating a suburban English teenager who is, in turn, imitating an Afro-American South Central LA "gangsta". If you wanted to take this seriously, you would probably need assistance from structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss, or "Claude L-S" to give him his "street" name.

Spared the need for a doctoral thesis, however, there are certain obvious truths up for discussion. One is that senior figures in families are often more in touch with the youngest generation than you imagine. For instance, my own grandmother, born the same day as the Queen Mother on 4 August 1900, was more tolerant of my teenage desire to buy a drum kit than my parents were. She also housed me without complaint on the one occasion when I "ran away" from home during this drum dispute.

Given this empathy between the generations, it seems quite natural for the flow of interaction to include imitation. For one thing, it has always been high up on the list of entertainment at family parties. My dad used to do Al Jolson singing, albeit without the make-up, while my mum would often get up on the kitchen table and imitate Cyd Charisse dancing the Charleston. This has genetically migrated to my being able to sing a fairly bad Sting for my own children's amusement. My wife, incidentally, does a pretty wicked George Formby on the ukelele.

The spread of imitation, not just as a means of fun, but also as a substantial part of modern personality, is nevertheless a disturbing phenomenon. The teenage years are understandably about the absorption of influences, from a comedian's catch-phrase to a film star's hair-style. The imitative ingredients of my teens were a Steve McQueen haircut, the dance routines of the Temptations and the pursuit of the silver-grey mohair slacks worn by Stevie Wonder on the cover of his down to earth album.

These days, Ali G's rap-slang has become everyday banter, while Friends provides all the hair and fashion styles. And the adoption of other identities seems to be spreading. You may think that it is limited to programmes such as Stars in Their Eyes, but there is actually a huge imitation industry, offering look-a-likes and tribute acts, for when people want to believe they are watching the real thing.

Staying in a small-town, Nottinghamshire hotel a few years ago, I noticed that their forthcoming entertainment consisted exclusively of the imitation format – Bill Trellis "as Roy Orbison" or even Joe Public "as Robbie Williams" and so on. Anonymous artists are posing as famous ones, having given up the pursuit of their individual success in favour of borrowing from that of others. You often see it in the House of Commons too.

Sometimes the borrowing goes a bit too far – Richard Madeley's "as Ali G" is rightly held to be one of the most excruciating moments of television, and we have had enough now of the ranks of Elvis Presleys at test matches. I even worry about my small Wiltshire town, in which there are doppelgangers for, among others, Robert Mitchum, the Newcastle manager Bobby Robson, the Italian footballer Roberto Baggio and actor Leslie Nielsen from the Police Squad spoofs. And then there's me "as Hank Marvin", of course.

stanhey@aol.com

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