“I wish I could fly way up to the sky, but I can’t!” For millions of people who watched Keith Harris and his duck Orville on TV in the Eighties, those words – seared into popular consciousness by the pair’s near-chart-topping single – continue to sum up all that is infantile, irritating and irredeemably naff about ventriloquism.
If you think that’s too harsh, you need only ask the younger exponents of the art form in Britain today what kind of image their line of showbiz enjoys and they won’t demur at the kind of assessment calculated to wipe the fixed smile off their faces.
When the late Ken Campbell, that restlessly influential theatre-making maverick, first suggested to Nina Conti that she should switch her attention from acting to larking about with a ventriloquist’s dummy – even buying her a teach-yourself kit – she recalls: “My heart just sank. I thought, ‘I can’t stand that stuff.’ It was the whole thing – all those samey wooden mannequins. You only have to see one bad ventriloquist and it’s likely to blight your attitude to it.”
Paul Zerdin offers an even more scathing view: “In general, people have this idea that it’s an old bloke with a dummy and they’re all bonkers and it’s basically rubbish.”
Both Zerdin and Conti are heading to the Edinburgh Fringe this year with new shows that may finally help swing the balance of opinion in favour of regarding ventriloquism as, whisper it, cool.
WATCH: VENTRILOQUIST AT EDINBURGH FESTIVAL