Ventriloquist Nina Conti comes to Cork

THE puppet allows a ventriloquist to say all manner of things — lewd, nasty and, in the case of Nina Conti, who performs at the Cork Opera House on Monday, darn funny.
Conti’s former lover and mentor, Ken Campbell, the inspirational English theatre director and actor, who died in 2008, prodded her in the direction of ventriloquism. This is related in her BAFTA-nominated documentary, Her Master’s Voice, which follows her journey across the Atlantic to Vent Haven Museum, in Kentucky, a resting place for the puppets of dead ventriloquists.

“When I came to ventriloquism, I was of the opinion, too: ‘why would anyone do it’?” says Conti. “Ken Campbell bought me a ‘teach yourself’ ventriloquism set, when I was in my late 20s. It was a big present. A big dummy came with it. I looked at it and thought, ‘how grim. Why does anyone do that’? I just thought ‘he’s really misjudged my taste here’.

“But then I gave it a go, and filmed myself so I would have proof that he shouldn’t have bothered me with the idea. Watching the video back, it was so exciting, because it looked like there were two people in the room. Straight away, I thought ‘that’s not how I remember it feeling. It’s extraordinary. That thing looks alive, like it was there’. I had such a nice day, thinking no one is doing this.”

Conti says ventriloquism has freed up her voice. “I mean vocally, not mentally. Normally censored stuff, I can say off the top of my head, and react to it afterwards. That, for me, is a really fascinating area — not to guard against your thoughts.”

Campbell — familiar to TV audiences as the grating friend, Roger, who pokes holes in Basil Fawlty’s pretence that Sybil is ill, in ‘The Anniversary’ episode of Fawlty Towers — was a maverick, funny and outrageous, according to actors Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent. Conti has served Campbell’s anarchic spirit well. “He spoke the truth — or what he thought was the truth — in an uncompromising way, whether or not it would offend. He was very witty with it. There was an actor, for example, that he thought had the quality of subtraction about him — when he’d come onto the stage, it would feel like somebody had left. Watching him deal with the world was absolutely hilarious and fascinating, and was done with your hand over your mouth: ‘I can’t believe he said that.’ I loved that about him. His big note to me was that we’re all crazier than we let it be known, but the ventriloquist’s doll can allow us access to the insanity of the ventriloquist. He really seemed to embody that combination of madness and creativity.”

Conti is independent-minded. She’s training to be a giggle doctor, to bring laughter to the bedsides of sick children in hospital, and once did a course in Mongolian throat-singing, another mission hatched by Campbell. She studied it for a day — the art of “two-tone throat singing, singing with two notes. I didn’t think about it for years after he sent me on that course, until I was giving birth, and I suddenly found I was doing it... so it did play an important role in my life.”

* Nina Conti performs at 8pm, Monday, Jan 20, Cork Opera House, Emmet Place, Cork;
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