How to make an impression
Nowadays, a comedy impressionist is a rare sight on stage. This artform has been left behind with flared trousers and the eighties word processor. Comedians are now more observational, chatty, satirical and find no room for impressionism within their acts. A vocal jamboree of celebrity characters is seen as ‘old hat’ and been overtaken by comics doing character voices to help illustrate a gag.
Danny Posthill made his name on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ bringing back comedy impressionism, like someone bringing a 1920’s toy car to the Antiques Roadshow. It was studied, looked over and appealed to a certain section of the entertainment marketplace. Danny further put his live talents to the test with a group of Sussex business people regaling them with a host of contemporary impressions, beautifully observed and vocally strong.
Michael Mcintyre, John Bishop, Jimmy Carr, Johnny Vegas, Alan Carr, Paul Gascoigne were all targets as he went from one to another. Yet the act lost impact as the impersonations were not followed through on the same level with outstanding comic material or stage technique. You certainly understood why the craft of impressionism was left as a stand-alone rather than a significant part of modern stand-up comedy.
What is needed is something else going on underneath the impression, which Rory Bremner use to refer to as ‘truth’. You cannot just a do a mimic of someone and hope that’s enough. Modern audiences expect more. In other words, the impressions are part of the act and not the act itself.
Accompanying Danny to the event was his friend and colleague Bobby Davro who still performs regularly on the corporate circuit and touring in a panto. But on this occasion Bobby was happy to enjoy his braised steak lunch and observe his pal. Davro’s career blossomed in the 80’s with his own ITV series (1986-89). His programme was mixed in to a TV schedule alongside other comedy impressionists such as Les Dennis, Dustin Gee, Janet Brown, Gary Wilmot, Jo Longthorne, Alan Stewart, Adin J. Harvey, Johnny Moore, Jessica Martin, Mike Osman, Eddie Large, Faith Brown and many others.
There were just so many TV light entertainment shows on, that were built around a team of impressionists ‘Who do you do’ (ITV 1972 -76), ‘Copy Cats’ (ITV 1985-87), The Laughter show (BBC 1984-86) ‘Go for it’ (ITV 1988). Nearly every variety programme of the time featured an impressionist.
All these acts known as impressionists were inspired by one artiste in the name of Mike Yarwood, whose BBC TV show was a Saturday night must in the 70’s, introducing the skill, voices and physical movements of the celebrities of the time, plus using the latest TV technology to enhance sketches made the show outstanding for the period.
Yarwood after a long television career sadly moved off centre stage suffering from depression, self-doubt and alcoholism as a new generation inspired by him took his place.
As comedy, itself began to change a new breed of impressionist emerged. Rory Bremner used his talent by way of satire and talked of ‘something underneath the gag’. Other impressionists such as Lenny Henry Steve Coogan and Freddie Starr moved away from this form of entertainment, bringing other aspects into their act which showed versatility and gave their careers longevity.
Impressionism can still be a legitimate comedy entertainment as long as the material, concepts and delivery is contemporary for the times.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.