Puppet master Paul Zerdin the man of many voices
Paul Zerdin is famous for talking to himself - and in his hands ventriloquism, that old staple of variety, isn't just child's play. SIMON PARKIN reports on the man and his potty mouthed puppets ahead of two shows in Norfolk.
Putting words into other people's mouths has become a funny business for Paul Zerdin.
The comedian is now one of the country's most popular ventriloquists, winning over audiences with his quick wit and impressive vocal talents.
Having appeared on the Royal Variety Show and Tonight at the London Palladium, he is now taking his fabric friends back on the road with his latest show, Puppet Master, which tonight arrives at Yarmouth's Britannia Pier for the first of two summer shows.
With the introduction of a new character, out of work TV presenter Alasdair Rimmer, who will be taking charge of MC duties, Puppet Master will see Paul adding a whole new dimension to the phrase 'audience participation'.
Tell us about your new puppet Alasdair Rimmer.
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He's a slightly washed-up game show host from the world of variety entertainment. He'll do absolutely anything to get back on television and muscles his way into the show without me really wanting him there. He's just so desperate to get a job and be involved. He's loosely based on the X-Factor voiceover guy Peter Dickson and Patrick Allen, who was the voice of E4 – it's an affectionate homage to them and their incredible voices. I'm obsessed with voices and he lets me indulge myself.
How do you go about creating a new character?
With an idea in my head and a voice. Initially, I didn't know what he looked like. So I spoke to my puppet maker. He had a head left over from an Ant and Dec puppet used on an ITV show, which was brilliant – it's massive! We stuck some eyes on, a nose and just played around with it until he looked cheesy enough. It was great fun because I haven't done a new character for ages. I found it strangely therapeutic, bringing him to life.
When you think of a joke, how do you decide which character gets to say it?
Because Sam is a kid who's about to become a teenager, he's a cheeky, always trying to cross the line and see how far he can push it. He's cocky and full of withering put downs, aimed at me and the audience, so he's easy to write for. The baby is being led astray by Sam and is a miniature version but he's got more to learn. Still, he's cheeky and knows more than he's letting on. Albert is an old man who's losing his hearing, losing his marbles a bit, but he's still more-or-less in control. The characters are so strong now, I instinctively know which jokes suit who.
As a ventriloquist, can you get away with jokes that other comedians can't?
Yes — and the joke is often at my expense. I can get away with a having a go at the audience much more too, you get to be cheekier. Mocking the front row is a trademark of my characters but I'm evolving my audience interaction beyond that. I've got this new section called 'Ask Albert' where people email in questions to my website and he'll impart his wisdom. It really opens up the show and makes it more unpredictable.
After the sell-out success and critical acclaim for Sponge Fest, do you feel pressure to deliver something bigger and better?
Sponge Fest finished with all the puppets coming alive independently of me, all-singing and all-dancing. And I thought how am I going to top that? My audience knows they're independent; it can't be a surprise anymore. So now I'm treating the show more like a live sitcom for the characters. I'm actually developing a sitcom with a production company, but I'm really keen to develop the idea live too because it works really well.
Having established yourself as a variety act, how did you reinvent yourself for the stand-up circuit?
I'd already gigged a bit on the stand-up circuit. But I knew I had to be seen at The Comedy Store if I was to get on The Royal Variety Performance and the bigger, edgier stand-up showcases on television. So I gave it a go, worked tremendously hard and it's panned out successfully. It's a great feeling to be able to do everything, from the comedy circuit to big corporate events, to performing on cruises and doing pantomimes.
Will you always be a ventriloquist?
I never wanted to be a straight stand-up. As a kid, I watched Paul Daniels and David Copperfield, all those magic shows on television. And that's all I ever wanted, to have a reason to be on stage, to be on television. My reason was to do magic or to do puppets. I never wanted to simply stand there and just do jokes or moan about things because I don't have anything to moan about, I've had a really nice life. I want to get the sitcom off the ground, get more television exposure and then see where it takes me
You've appeared on The Royal Variety Performance three times now, does it get easier?
Doing it is exciting because it's a huge show and you're performing in front of members of the Royal Family. The first time I did it, I was a bit too nervous. But the last one, in 2009, I've done so many shows like it now, and I reasoned that it wouldn't change my career dramatically, so I relaxed. Sometimes you shouldn't push yourself too hard.
And you've performed for the armed forces too. Are they an intimidating crowd?
Doing troop shows in Iraq and Afghanistan, they're some of the best gigs I've ever done. Appearing on stage in front of 5000 troops in the desert, they are honestly great audiences, particularly in Afghanistan. They've got it tough, so when you do go out there, they're incredibly grateful. And they want to have a laugh because bloody hell, do they need it.
Your parents both worked in radio. Were you always destined to be in showbusiness?
I was obsessed with entertainment from an early age, dressing up in my mum's clothes and pretending to be Margaret Thatcher! I was only six but my parents realised it was in my blood. When I left school, without any GCSEs, and was working part-time in a magic shop in London, as well as doing children's parties at the weekend and close-up magic at restaurants in the evenings, I did the airport information radio you'd hear near Gatwick and Heathrow. I tried my hand at everything before realising that, actually, stand-up comedy and puppets was the way forward.
You've starred in various TV prank shows over the years. How tempting is it to use your voice throwing skills to fool people in real life?
Very. Because I spend so much time thinking of scenarios to talk about on stage, and having done so much hidden camera stuff, I know how much of a laugh you can have with it. Without a camera crew, there isn't much point but I was at Heathrow last year, on the travelator, with the female voice that tells you to 'mind the step'. And someone in front of me didn't and went flying forward, so I just added 'enjoy your trip' on the end. They looked around but I was whistling, minding my own business. I couldn't help myself. Generally though, I try to keep it just for the job. I don't talk to the puppets offstage either.
Is it a drama getting the puppets through airport customs?
I do a bit in my act where I talk about going through the x-ray and them finding a little kid in my bag. In reality though, I just shove them in a suitcase and they go in the hold, I don't see them until the other end.
Is ventriloquism a rewarding career?
Absolutely. But any would-be ventriloquist ought to try to get as many qualifications as possible, because if your show business career doesn't work out, you've got something to fall back on. I can't do anything else, I'm doomed to work in show business. And you have to persevere, no matter how many people say that you can't do it or however many knocks you take on the way. If you think you can do it, don't let anything put you off.
? Paul Zerdin Puppet Master is at Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth, tonight at 7.30pm, �15-�10, 01493 842209, www.britannia-pier.co.uk
? He will be back again on August 31.