Read its lips: the ventriloquist's dummy is on its deathbed. Ventriloquists, once a mainstay of the UK light entertainment industry, are now such a dying breed that there are barely 15 left in the country.
The startling figure symbolises the dramatic decline of a once hugely popular art form that, in its 1950s and 60s heyday, provided livings for 400 full-time performers.
Now an academic from the University of London claims to have pinpointed the reasons why ventriloquism is dying. A combination of inept performers, sophisticated child audiences and growing parental unease about the creepiness of mannequins has, he says, turned it into little more than an arcane, slightly naff curiosity.
"One of the things about ventriloquism is that nobody is any good at it," said Steven Connor, an English professor at Birkbeck College and author of a new study of the subject. "There is also a certain amount of creepiness about the dummies, and that has helped to lessen their appeal.
"It is now very small scale, with very little if any on television. One of the problems is that TV makes it difficult because the audience can see the lips moving." Professor Connor added that the cause of ventriloquists' dummies had hardly been helped by the way they had been portrayed by film-makers. Movies such as Dead of Night and Magic had depicted them as malevolent entities capable of possessing their owners.
His views are endorsed by Nina Conti, the current BBC Comedian of the Year and one of a handful of performers keeping the art alive by incorporating it into their routines on the fringe festival circuit. "I've just been to a convention in America, and I feel sorry for some of the performers," said Conti, the daughter of the actor Tom Conti. "They've got preachers who are using ventriloquists' dummies just to get their congregations to listen to them. Their lips might not necessarily move, but their faces will be in some sort of terrible taut, fixed smile."
Citing The Muppets and animatronic puppets as nails in the coffins of traditional ventriloquist's dummies, Conti, 28, added: "There is some truth in the suggestion that traditional ventriloquism can be a little bit sinister. What I find disturbing from my own point of view is that I end up talking to myself far more than I used to – and it doesn't seem strange any more."
Keith Harris, who, with his puppets Orville and Cuddles, was a regular on television shows in the 1980s, said: "Ventriloquism has always been a dying art, right from the beginning. One of the problems is that there have been films made on this subject and they were all very scary, so that has had an impact over the years. But I've always tried to make my puppets so bright and colourful that they just look like cute little creatures, and no child could be frightened by them."
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