When I was a child I was I was frightened of clowns. I don’t remember this very well, it’s more that I remember my mother telling me – as I grew older – that I had been frightened of clowns when I was small. I do have a vague recollection of being invited to the circus with my friend and his family, and having to refuse because of my clown-phobia.
And I remember going to a friend’s birthday party when everything stopped for Doctor Who – this would have been the old black-and-white version, with the original Doctor, William Hartnell – and I had to stay with the adults away from the TV so that the monsters didn’t frighten me.
I was fine with the Daleks, they didn’t bother me. My mother’s theory, and I think she was right, was that it was a distorted human-like face that scared me.
My mother would also tell me in later life that as a small child in the early Sixties I did not like Lenny the Lion. “Not keen on Lenny Lion,” I said, apparently. Not keen? What sort of annoying child says that?
But I must have overcome my fear of Lenny quickly because I remember liking him very much. To explain, he was a lion with, and this might have been what initially put me off, a clown-like face. He was, in fact, a ventriloquist’s dummy. The ventriloquist was a man called Terry Hall who, with hindsight, was a very camp man.
I imagine Lenny the Lion must have been the beginning of my fascination with ventriloquists and their dummies.
At around the same time I remember a gentleman appearing on TV variety shows with a little girl doll called Daisy May, who spoke in a very quiet whisper. He appeared very old to me though with hindsight I don’t suppose he was. I now know his stage name to be Saveen, and he was one of the wave of British entertainers who came into showbusiness after the Second World War.
But perhaps the most famous ventriloquism team as I was growing up was Ray Alan and Lord Charles. Ray Alan was an amazing vent – you really couldn’t see anything move. His dummy, Lord Charles, though this seems a poor word for such a colourful character, was an upper-class drunk sporting a monocle. I loved him. “Silly arse,” as Lord Charles would say.
Don’t take my word for it, take a look at this video showing a master, perhaps the master, at work:
Some years ago Ray Alan presented a documentary about ventriloquists, on BBC Radio 2 as I recall. Yes, I know, a radio programme on the subject! But the fact is at least two very famous practitioners made their names through the radio, or should I say four counting the so-called dummies.
In Britain Peter Brough and his little friend Archie Andrews starred in a 1950s radio programme, Educating Archie, which at various times featured upcoming stars including Tony Hancock, Benny Hill and Julie Andrews.
Over in the United States Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had their own radio show, from the 1930s to the 1950s, featuring some of the biggest stars of the day as guests.
Ray Alan came across in his documentary as a rounded, pleasant and, essentially, normal man. He did have hidden depths though. I’ve since read that he wrote scripts for Morecambe & Wise and The Two Ronnies under the pseudonym Ray Whyberd.
And, in later life, he wrote murder mysteries. I recently bought online, through Alibris, A Game Of Murder and Death And Deception. So far I’ve read the latter – a good holiday book, I would say, with an interesting twist.
Ray Alan told in his radio documentary that the famous US vent Edgar Bergen would, in rehearsals, be all over the place while his dummy Charlie McCarthy was word perfect.
Other aspects of voice-throwing highlighted in the programme were more unsettling, hinting at a darker side of the art. For example, the ventriloquist who habitually set a place for his dummy at the meal table; and another who strapped his dummy in the car seat when they went out.
Perhaps this is part of the fascination. Yes, ventriloquism can be very funny and the technique of those who can do it really well is a marvel. But there is something sinister about bringing a dummy to life, particularly one with a brightly-coloured scary face. Careful, we’re getting back to my clown-phobia again.
Take a look at this clip of Michael Redgrave in the 1945 Ealing film The Dead Of Night as he brilliantly portrays a man falling apart as his dummy Hugo takes him over:
Recently modern-day ventriloquist Nina Conti, and her dummy monkey Monk, appeared in two documentaries on BBC Four, Nina Conti – A Ventriloquist’s Story: Her Master’s Voice and Make Me Happy: A Monkey’s Search For Happiness.
I suppose you could say the first documentary was about Nina dealing with her past, and the second was about Nina dealing with her present. The programmes were revealing, emotional and, at times, disturbing, even uncomfortable.
But what struck me most was the way Monk – I was going to say “was used by Nina” but that seems to undervalue him – was the way Monk said what Nina felt and, in particular, said what she was too polite or introverted to say herself.
Here they are in action in Australia in 2009 (with strong language):
This has got me thinking. Perhaps I could use a dummy to say what I really think about life and people? I need to practise though. And I must avoid the word “hospital” at all costs.
PS: If you do not know why I should avoid the word “hospital”, go back and watch the Ray Alan and Lord Charles clip – I promise, your life will be better for it.
Some scary photographs
Scary vintage dummies: http://sobadsogood.com/2011/12/15/14-creepy-vintage-ventriloquist-dummies-photographs/
To find out more
Ray Alan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Alan
The Dead of Night: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_of_Night
Nina Conti – A Ventriloquist’s Story: Her Master’s Voice: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jv1yr
Nina Conti website: http://www.ninaconti.co.uk/
Alibris, recommended for buying second-hand books: http://www.alibris.co.uk/