Is the impressions show dead?

Is the impressions show dead?

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Monday, 22nd December 2014

With no major impressions series appearing on our screens since Very Important People ended in 2012, we ask 'is the the impressions show dead'?

"How many impressionists do we see on TV these days? Hardly any... You find some on the cruise ships entertaining the 'blue rinse brigade.'" That is the damning view of Comedy Store founder Don Ward, who says he "can't stand" impressionists.

A decade ago, the impressions genre was in rude health. From political satire on Dead Ringers, to celebrity caricatures on Bo' Selecta!, there was an impressions show to suit almost every taste.

Morgana Robinson and Terry Mynott's Very Important People was the last big series to mimic celebrities, ending in 2012.

With another year gone without a major impressions series appearing on the television slates, is the classic impressions show dead?

"It's a dying art form," confirms Pete Thornton, Head of Comedy at Tiger Aspect, who worked as Executive Producer on The Impressions Show with Culshaw and Stephenson.

Speaking to commissioners, writers and impressionists alike, there is a strong sense that the genre, though fundamentally a timeless one, is in desperate need of a refresh.

Production costs, a generation of impressionists growing older and a reluctance to commission more satirical comedy are seen as the main reasons why the impressions show is, if not dead, dormant.

"There is an element of snobbery around impressions," says genre stalwart Rory Bremner in response to Don Ward's dig, "They tend to be associated with variety, so they're seen as a trick."

The Jon Culshaw Generation

The majority of today's most popular impressionists ס group Pete Thornton refers to as "The Jon Culshaw Generation"- cut their teeth working on Spitting Image in their twenties.

Two decades on, this generation of impressionists is now older than many of today's biggest celebrities, so there is a need to uncover new talent.

"You can't expect Jon Culshaw to do a viable impression of someone who is in their twenties, because he just isn't," says Thornton.

While shows like Very Important People and The Kevin Bishop Show offered a platform for new talent to showcase their skills, they have not enjoyed the same success of long-running predecessors such as The Big Impression.

Impressions shows timelineDead Ringers returned to Radio 4 this summer, drawing once again on the talents of Culshaw and his long-term colleagues.

However, with a lack of impressionist shows currently television, there is little to compel the younger generation to develop impressions. Put simply by one producer, it just isn't cool any more.

Need for fresh formats

Coupled with the search for new on-screen talent is the need to find fresh formats for impression shows.

"Commissioners are looking for fresh ideas," says Thornton, who thinks that the days of elaborate disguises worn by the likes of Alistair McGowan and Ronni Ancona are over, suggesting that impressions don't have to be accurate to be funny.

"Star Stories was a really important half way act in terms of people doing impressions that were looser and more fun, and less of a craft."

The problem for impressionists is that it is harder for them to shine away from the impressions show format.

"I think it's quite easy to be slapped down as an impressionist on a show like [Mock the Week] as a bit of a party trick," says Bremner, "but on the other hand, it can be used well to illustrate a point."

Alistair McGowan, the poster boy of the early 2000s impressions boom, agrees: "If you do an impression [on a panel show], somebody, within about 30 seconds, will ask 'who was that then?' They had to say that to get the laugh out of it. So any time you do an impression, either they undermine it or it looks like you've written it."

There is less of a consensus about how the impressions show itself can be refreshed.

For Thornton, who began his career as an animator at Aardman before going on to work at Spitting Image, developments in animation could be the solution to the issue of tired formats.

"[With animation] you'd have an extremely good caricature likeness with an extremely accurate vocal match and you end up with something that's quite compelling."

Bremner doesn't think the change needs to be so drastic, "I don't think people tire of [impressions shows], I think what they do tire of is the same old impressions. When someone like Morgana comes along doing Fearne Cotton and people that haven't been done before, suddenly it's fresh again."

Changing television habits

The way we watch television is partly responsible for the lack of impressions on the box.

"TV is so different to how it was 15 years ago; it's all reality [shows] now," says impressionist Francine Lewis, whose 2013 Britain's Got Talent audition, went viral on YouTube.

"The biggest problem I think that any impressionist faces now is the multi-channel, multi-platform world in which we live," says McGowan, who recalls how easy it was for Mike Yarwood, who was performing impressions when the nation was watching the same three television channels.

The future, McGowan believes, is in targeting niche audiences: "You get a specialist pop star impersonator to do a show on MTV or a specialist sports person to do something on Sky," he coughs, suggesting he'd be up for the job. Dead Ringers is perfect for Radio 4, he says, because it is written with a very specific audience in mind.

In order to target fans of reality stars, Francine Lewis has bypassed commissioners, and uploads her impressions directly to Vine. "It's amazing the reaction you get from it. I don't think people watch TV as much as they surf the internet."

With a coalition government in Westminster and a General Election rapidly approaching, audiences have been left wondering how politicians have been given such an easy ride by satirists and impressionists over the last five years.

"It's part of a disengagement with politics," says Bremner. "I think satire and political impressions actually connect people with their politicians... People didn't know who Alastair Campbell was when we started, and our attitude was 'well they'll know soon enough.'"

The lack of satirical shows on television is due to commissioners wanting to order more light-hearted, escapist series like Miranda, says Thornton, who thinks that television is "crying out" for a new satirical series, which would be a very hard sell to broadcasters.Rory Bremner (Credit: BBC)Rory Bremner Review, showing on BBC Scotland this Christmas, will see Bremner looking back at an exciting year for Scottish politics, and will feature clips from his stand-up show (Credit: BBC)

The enduring appeal of impressions

Despite reluctance from broadcasters to commission an impressions series, there is no doubt among those involved that there is still an appetite for one.

With Radio 4 ordering a further three series of Dead Ringers, it seems there could be an audience for something similar on television.

Lewis claims that she is constantly being asked by the public why she doesn't have her own show, while McGowan says that despite the challenges of modern programming, he would do another series "at the drop of a hat."

"There's nothing funnier than seeing somebody being taken off," says Lewis, and Thornton agrees, "A good impression absolutely spellbinding."

The Christmas schedules include shows featuring impressions from Rory Bremner and Jon Culshaw, giving some hope that impressionists aren't out of a job just yet, however it will take a brave commissioner to find a format that recalls the early noughties heyday.


By Pippa Shawley


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With no major impressions series appearing on our screens since Very Important People ended in 2012, we ask 'is the the impressions show dead'?