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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Impressionists Have Had Their Day in the Spotlight of UK Stand-Up

Impressionists Have Had Their Day in the Spotlight of UK Stand-Up

Satirising politicians has lost its appeal as they are so bland and because political reality parodies itself. You can no longer make it up.

Rory Bremner: Hard to Find Work

Long-time stalwart of the British comedy impressionist circuits, Rory Bremner, confessed to the Daily Telegraph (October 2011) that he was experiencing difficulty finding work. Channel 4 (who had employed him for 20 years) had no need of his particular services because ‘people no longer recognise the voices’ of top political players.

He told Bryony Gordon in her interview that a brilliant impression now ‘would be like showing a dog a card trick’. In the next day‘s edition of the Telegraph, Matthew Norman wrote a personal opinion on Bremner being forced to do a turn on Strictly Come Dancing to earn a crust, believing it was because public interest in politics ‘lies in inverse proportion to the magnitude of the political moment’.

So as the global economy begins to wobble dangerously, world leaders appear largely paralysed by the scale of the tasks facing them, the era of poking fun at the pomposity of authority, appears to have left central stage. Clone-like identikit politicos are not as amusing as Wilson and Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher were in the 60s, 70s and 80s, along with sideshows of eccentrics and mavericks: Benn, George Brown, Heseltine, although London Mayor Boris Johnson fits the bill today.

Impressionist-Comedy, Genre In Own Right

British television screen and stage has a distinguished record in satire, bringing the high and mighty down to earth. From That Was The Week That Was (1962-3) onwards, via Not The 9 O’Clock News, Brass Eye, The Day Today, Have I Got News for You, The Late Edition, Mock the Week and Spitting Image, British television has developed a healthy disregard for the political establishment.

These shows have lampooned, ridiculed and made laughing stocks of individual politicians, not to mention judges, journalists, criminals, sports people, ‘celebs’ and the Royal Family. In that sense they are but part of the rich carpet of comic potential upon which the stand-up joker walks.

Bremner was a class act and may still be outstanding, with a real eye and ear for highlighting the quirks, foibles, mannerisms and features of his victims. He is in the same star-turn league as Mike Yarwood, both practitioner/impressionists who caught the mood of their times as well as the faces and voices. Yarwood imitated Robin Day, political commentator and football legend Brian Clough as well.

Bobby Davro, Alistair McGowan and Jon Culshaw are other exemplars of the 20th century art form. Women who succeeded in the genre include Pamela Stephenson, Tracey Ullman, Catherine Tate and Ronni Ancona. There was a limited stage circuit for these kinds of acts as musical hall and variety shows gave ground in the 1970s to television, which is where these performers really made their marks.

However, Norman’s point was that today politicians ‘have shrunk’, becoming like our town centres ‘utterly homogenised’. He argued it’s no wonder public (and thereby television producers’) interest has waned in booking the person who can mimic a party leader or two and come up with some funny things they might or could have said/done.

Politicians Are the Stand-Ups Now

Running alongside this change in the entertainment fabric of Britain, there’s popular political drama on TV (Yes Prime Minister repeats) and on stage (Yes Prime Minister). But, even more significant, is the received wisdom that politicians are often little more than performers themselves.

To take one just example from the late 20th century, Tony Blair. From the moment he emerged on the political stage, commentators described him as actor as much as anything else. He was not the first. Politicians have often been fine orators, dissemblers, jokers. Some have been all those at once. However, as a youngster, Blair wanted to be a rock star.

In January 2006, TV producer Victoria Powell wrote in The Guardian that Blair was an excellent actor. She quoted his English tutor, David MacMurray, who said: ‘He could inhabit a part and showed great command of the audience’. It was demonstrated in his rendition of the Lesson at Princess Diana’s funeral: an old ‘actor who could remember his techniques’. He felt what Blair enjoyed most, was the applause.

It is fair to say that all seekers of the limelight in the political arena must not only love it (and the acclaim), but be reasonably effective at performing. What is new, is that audiences are not drawn in either extreme of emotion towards today’s politicians, their abuses of expenses, apparent impotence to achieve much and their perceived distance from the daily trials of everyday people.

That’s why, at least for now, the comic-impressionist is out of fashion, although nobody should rule out a comeback in another generation. The line between acting and politics, while always a little blurred, has now become totally fused. The boundaries between impressionism and daily normality have totally disappeared.

But that’s life, that’s showbiz. The challenge now is for would-be stand-up performers to respond to it.

First published on Suite 101, 12 October 2011

Image: Rory Bremner, Once-Master Politico Impressionist

Further Reading:

The Great British Love and Tolerance of the Eccentric.

If UK Politics Are Pure Theatre, Politicians Are the Performers.


  • The Daily Telegraph, Bryony Gordon, Impressionist and Strictly star Rory Bremner, I’ve lost my confidence, 7 October 2011. Web 12 October 2011.
  • The Daily Telegraph, Matthew Norman, Rory must dance because no one will lead. 8 October 2011.
  • The Guardian, Victoria Powell, Tony Blair absolutely modelled himself on Mick Jagger’, 6 January 2006. Web 12 October 2011.

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