BIG INTERVIEW Jan Ravens: 'If you become part of the establishment then you lose your edge'

Jan Ravens
Jan Ravens

Given a career in comedy that stretches back to the 1970s, it's a surprise to learn that the star impressionist and actress Jan Ravens only got round to taking her first solo show to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer.

With its status as the mecca of comedy, it's not quite as if she's the Fringe virgin she's been portrayed as in some quarters.

'I’ve done the Fringe for years,' Jan tells The Guide, 'but this was my first solo hour, so I think the publicist was plugging it as a Fringe debut but I started doing Edinburgh in late 1970s – a very long time ago when I was at Cambridge and doing Footlights and all that.'

She's being typically modest – she was the first ever female president of the esteemed Cambridge Footlights troupe, which has served as a launch pad for generations of British comics, writers and performers.

'I’ve been doing it on and off at revues and for Funny Women, but it was my first whole hour, which was exciting.'

She is now coming to perform in Portsmouth as part of the Saturday line-up of the first Big Mouth Comedy Festival over the weekend of March 10 and 11.

Jan Ravens is appearing at the Big Mouth Comedy Festival at Portsmouth Guildhall in March 2018

Jan Ravens is appearing at the Big Mouth Comedy Festival at Portsmouth Guildhall in March 2018

'It wasn’t the first time I’d done a solo show,' Jan adds. 'I did a solo show in London in 2009, but it’s a very different feeling doing it on your own. It’s nice in that you’re in control and that you steer the audience the way you want to go and that’s different every night, because it’s a different chemical make-up every night, which can be very interesting.

'When you’re putting it together, that’s what I find the most nerve-racking, wondering if it’s funny, not knowing quite if it’s going to work and having to remember a whole hour is quite a thing.

'At the moment I’m not doing it every night, it’s there and it just comes back but you have to do a bit of revision to hone it, it's amazing. And as things happen along the run, you’re changing bits and bobs depending on what’s going on in the world.'

She is perhaps best known for being a mainstay of the ongoing Radio 4 incarnation and the now defunct TV version of Dead Ringers, where she has portrayed figures such as Newsnight host Kirsty Wark, Nigella Lawson, The Queen, Anne Robinson, Fiona Bruce, Hillary Clinton and prime minister Theresa May.

But her solo show was Difficult Woman, based on Ken Clarke's comments about Theresa May.

Given the lightning speed at which the world seems to change these days, was she ever worried that events could overtake her work?

'Obviously if Theresa May resigned that would be a big change. The show was about whether she was she a difficult woman or did she just not agree with Ken Clarke?

'People get called difficult for all sorts of reasons that may not be perceived as difficult in a man, so I was interested in the whole notion of what a difficult woman is, and I talked a lot about Theresa May and her as a personality, and a leader. It’s very interesting, whether people’s reaction to her is because she’s not a very effective to her, or is the extreme reaction compounded because she’s a woman and they still can’t quite get used to the fact that there’s a woman in charge?

'When she called the snap election, I thought "Oh damn", she’s going to resign and my whole show is going to have to be rewritten. And then I took it out on tour in the autumn so I wanted her to hang on in there until the tour had finished. Now I’m not doing the full length show, I think, well I can adapt, it’s not so crucial...

While not quite putting her political cards on the table, she's clearly not satisfied the current situation.

'The trouble about Theresa May going is that the alternatives are so terrible, and that’s the difficult thing and the problem for the Tory party and the country as a whole. We're in this mess with Brexit, where nobody knows what they want and the opposition isn’t really opposing it effectively. We don’t really know where we are, we’re all sort of floundering around a bit, aren’t we?'

But on the plus side, with so many woman in positions of power and influence, there's never been a better time for a female satirical impersonator.

'It’s been really great,' Jan agrees. 'It’s everywhere – the ones in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, we nearly had a female president of the USA, sadly not quite, but she’s another story. It’s all a good story.

'I do do Hillary Clinton, she’s an interesting character. She was portrayed in such misogynistic ways by Trump and a lot by the American media. They had things like pictures of Trump with her severed head like Perseus and Medusa, with a bleeding neck. All that kind of thing. It was absolutely hideous, really savage.

'To a large extent, I think people were maybe leery of the fact that she’s a woman and she did make a lot of mistakes in aligning herself with the establishment that had gone before when the American people were saying: “We need change.” Whereas probably in policy she could have effected more change than Trump.

'The rather cruel irony, is that he purported to be on the side of the working man, where he’s not a working man, he’s from inherited money and he’s lost a lot of it. He’s not what he claims. That sort of “I’m a rebel, I’m one of you”, when he's not at all, but he put that over better than her.

It's certainly very different from when she did voices for the classic puppet-based satirical show, Spitting image. During her time there she never got a shot at any of the main characters.

'Spitting Image back then was very much like you were the token woman, the women just did all of the female voices, all except Margaret Thatcher, who was done by Steve Nallon – brilliantly, they portrayed her as a man in a man’s suit.

'It was rather galling to be honest, the first female prime minister comes along and it gets to be done by a man, but he was so good at it.'

And another of her 'regulars' is former chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, and now Bake-Off and QI host, Sandi Toksvig

'She's an old friend since Cambridge. She’s got such a recognisable voice,' she slips seamlessly into it, 'Sandi Toksvig joyously goes up and down, generally, curiously, up and down.

'She’s become such a national treasure, When I did QI [last November] I put on a blonde wig and glasses and did her signing off, so she’s quite happy with it.'

Does she ever get much feedback from the objects of her impersonations?

'I think most people think it’s quite fun. If you were saying they were rubbish, if you were pointing out something about them that was pejorative, then obviously they wouldn’t like it, but most impressions are fun.

'I tend not to come across the political ones – with them you are doing something where you hope you’re making people look at things in a different way, giving them a different perspective on things. I wouldn’t have thought Theresa May likes it too much. But people like Sandi, or the newsreaders, they love it, because it’s sort of enhancing their profile.

'But the politicians, who knows what they think? And I think that’s right, because when you start chumming up with the politicians, you can’t be that independent observer. Not that one is an anarchist or a Wolfie Smith kind of thing, but you do need that degree of separation.

'If you become part of the establishment then you lose your edge. If you start going to all these dinners where they’re hanging around, I don’t want that, I want to be on the edge looking in.'

At the comedy festival, she's appearing in the same session as her Dead Ringers colleague, Alistair McGowan, who she is full of praise for.

'I think we first met on Spitting Image and did a lot of radio, he was obviously a baby back then. He’s got some amazing voices, he’s very good at accuracy, he’s got some spookily accurate ones.'

• Ticket cost from £19 for an afternoon session, to £71 for the full weekend. Go to bigmouthcomedyfestival.co.uk.