Ventriloquism is not for dummies - it takes imagination and skill

I hope Paul Zerdin's success on America's Got Talent will help reverse the decline of a profession nearly killed by the end of Variety

Click to follow

The British ventriloquist Paul Zerdin has won America’s Got Talent. When I read that the prize was a million dollars, I was reminded of something another ventriloquist, the late Ray Alan, said when I asked whether he ever felt daft talking to his doll, Lord Charles. “Not when I get the cheque,” he said.

In 1950s Britain there were about 500 professional ventriloquists. Today, the number is in single figures, and I hope Zerdin’s victory helps reverse the decline of a profession nearly killed by the end of Variety. I have a filing cabinet drawer labelled “Vents”, having researched a book on the subject. That it never came to fruition is not the fault of the vents, who struck me as unusually imaginative and skilful. Zerdin, like most modern vents, is technically superb. There’s no room these days for a bad vent, like Arthur Prince, who smoked a cigar to hide his lips as he voiced Sailor Jim (whose distorted-looking head was buried with Prince in Hampstead in 1948). Trouble was – the cigar waggled.

But as with any art-form, technique is only half the story. It is axiomatic among vents that, “You don’t attempt any of the difficult letters [BFMPV] in the first minute. After that, if you’re making people laugh, they’re not looking at your lips.” I admire the way the vents go after their laughs. If they were novelists they would be classed as Modernists, such is their experimentation. Ray Alan had a routine where Lord Charles would also do ventriloquism, with another, smaller Lord Charles. Ken Dodd (who dabbles in ventriloquism) asks his figure, Dickie Mint, “Would you like a big bottle of brown beer and some bread and butter … or a shandy?” “A shandy,” says Dickie, after a pause. The brilliant Nina Conti sometimes stows her monkey (Monk, who sounds like a middle-aged Scotsman) in a basket during her routines, and allows his persona to possess her entirely. “Oh my God,” Monk/Conti declares, “I’m huge and a woman!”

It is slightly disturbing. The creepiness is part of the appeal. Look at the YouTube footage of the famous dolls who have outlived their masters, and sit, like a cinema audience of the dead, in the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky. I was once sent some explanatory notes about the figures. One reads, “Champagne Charlie, made by Frank Marshall... could not walk properly until it was operated on by the McElroy Brothers. It can walk, smoke, carry a cane, move its eyes and do the splits.” It’s terrifying, in other words.

Most vents do play with the overtones of necromancy or possession, but they are only able to do so because they have performed an elemental artistic function: they have subdivided themselves. In the reality-TV era, when people are amply rewarded for being their relentless, monolithic selves, this seems to me a virtue.

Andrew Martin’s novel, 'The Yellow Diamond', is published in November by Faber