Jan Ravens: perfect mimic for our times | Observer profile
When it comes to potent television satire, Americans don’t have to rely on the desk-bound wit of the hosts of their late-night shows. The big male stars of the smart political take-down – from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, to Stewart’s successor on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, and our own John Oliver – are not the only ones with a licence to fire piercing jibes at will. Over the last decade, the political impersonations of women such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kate McKinnon and Melissa McCarthy have also had real impact in Washington.
Fey’s impersonation of the Republican candidate Sarah Palin on the popular comedy show Saturday Night Live was a powerful weapon that proved to have a longer and more toxic half-life than any cleverly constructed joke delivered by Stewart. What is more, last February on the same show, McCarthy’s parody of a heated Sean Spicer White House press conference, eventually seen by almost 30 million online, may well have been a key factor in the Trump spokesman’s eventual retreat into the political wilderness.
But now Brits too can say: “Cometh the hour, cometh our own woman mimic.” With the rise and rise of a slew of female political leaders, Jan Ravens’s brilliantly honed vocal skills have propelled her into the spotlight.
This summer, Ravens, a 59-year-old comedy veteran from the Wirral, took her first solo show to Edinburgh’s fringe. And the acclaimed Difficult Woman, which starts a national tour next month, ably showcases her versatility. With a title that recalls Ken Clarke’s appraisal of Theresa May, it features portraits not only of our warbling prime minister, but of the glad-handing, steely-eyed Hillary Clinton and the frosty Angela Merkel, as well as Nicola Sturgeon, Diane Abbott and Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark. Each is conjured up with hair’s-breadth accuracy.
“There has never been a better time for impressionist Jan Ravens to make her fringe debut,” wrote Bruce Dessau in London’s Evening Standard, before praising her polished take-off of May and adding that her sleepy rendition of Abbott was “glorious”.
If Ravens’s impression of Sandi Toksvig – an entertainer now also a political figure since the foundation of the Women’s Equality party – also impressed Dessau, maybe that’s because the two women are former colleagues and old Cambridge University pals.
Appropriately enough, Ravens started her career in comedy by breaking the rules of an established men’s club, quite literally. In 1980, she performed in a genre-busting all-female student show with her Cambridge contemporaries, Toksvig and Emma Thompson, and also became the first woman president of the prestigious Footlights revue club.
Until this talented trio arrived in town, Ravens recently told the comedy pundit Kate Copstick, female comics required limited range: “We got to pop up in the sketches and be the sort of ‘your laugh is here, Mr Smith’ feeds, but that was it.” Much liked, the “jolly” young Ravens is remembered by some of her Cambridge peers as having an unexpectedly ribald turn of phrase for a varsity gal.
After graduating with a degree in education from Homerton College, she went on to direct what is perhaps Footlights’ most illustrious recent crop of comic talent – Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Thompson – in 1981’s award-winning Edinburgh fringe show, The Cellar Tapes.
Of Theresa May she has said: “Her mouth wants to smile but the rest of her face won’t let her”
A period as a trainee comedy producer followed, working alongside future titans Griff Rhys Jones, Jimmy Mulville and the late Geoffrey Perkins, producer of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Next came roles in the “legitimate theatre”, including a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1994.
Ravens’s skill at reproducing the vocal foibles of her satirical targets soon earned her work on Spitting Image. Here, with regular gigs voicing the female puppets, Ravens joined a team that included Harry Enfield, Alistair McGowan, Kate Robbins, Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan and her future husband, the musician Steve Brown, who wrote the songs for the show.
Bill Dare, who produced eight series of Spitting Image, is a longtime fan of Ravens’s searing comic instinct. “Jan is a brilliant voice artist, actor and impressionist but more than that, she is a very astute judge of material. Nothing gets past her,” he told the Observer.
But it is Ravens’s weekly turns on Radio 4’s Dead Ringers that have seen her gradually climb to the top of the comedic heap. Just as the women in Westminster and Holyrood have won bigger roles, so has she.
“If Jan’s in a sketch, the writers know they’ll get a great performance, but their work will also be held up to scrutiny and they may have a lot of rewriting to do. She keeps us on our toes,” said Dare, now the producer of Dead Ringers. Ravens, he adds, has always “batted for a bigger female presence on the show, when female politicians and presenters were thin on the ground”. It is, Dare points out drily, “less of an issue now”.
Where once Ravens’s fellow performer Jon Culshaw rode high on the airwaves with his work as Tony Blair, John Major or Barack Obama, now she dominates each week with her uncanny recreation of May’s strained and wobbly tones: a leader, Ravens has commented, who oddly “provides her own descant”.
For Dare, Ravens’s May is “her finest achievement”, but guests on Robert Peston’s ITV political show last autumn were equally bowled over by her impression of the home secretary, Amber Rudd. The trick is to reveal to listeners how well they already know a famous subject’s vocal tics. Ravens does this by thinking herself into the attitudes of the character, as much as by reproducing their exact pitch.
Of May she has said: “Her mouth wants to smile but the rest of her face won’t let her.” In her current show, she works without the fuss of props and for many critics, including Dessau, they would be superfluous: “On screen, mimics can use prosthetics; on stage, Ravens becomes Joanna Lumley with merely a look,” he wrote last month.
Ravens is not the first female impressionist to become a star. The late Janet Brown was familiar to viewers of Mike Yarwood’s shows during the 1970s when she created a version of Margaret Thatcher that was only slightly more magnified than the real thing, although she ultimately had to compete with the rival impersonation of Steve Nallon, who voiced Thatcher on Spitting Image.
Tracey Ullman has also recently returned to British TV with a late-night show that has fun at the expense of Merkel and Sturgeon. But it is Ravens’s unfaltering ear that skewered May during a summer in which her status in Westminster has declined.
So can a good spoof really puncture a career? Far from deflating a political ego, a popular take-off can actually raise a profile, as it might be argued to have done for Boris Johnson. It’s difficult to see, though, how Ravens’s ghoulishly grim and quavering May can inflict anything but damage.
Ravens, who lives in south-west London, has three sons. Her marriage to Brown produced two of them, Lenny and Alfie, one of whom – Alfie – is also a comedian. With two Spitting Image parents, Alfie has admitted a degree of inevitability about this. He is, he has said, “a eugenics project bred for the purpose of comedy”.
Since splitting with Brown in 1993, Ravens has married the wealthy music industry mogul with the bottomlessly appealing name of Max Hole, and she has a third son, Louis. Hole is the man since instrumental in bringing the hit show The Voice to British screens.
Ravens recently recalled a happy time spent on honeymoon in 1999, half of it alone with her new husband at the fancy Cipriani hotel in Venice and the second half together with their young son in her beloved Cornwall.
In 2006, she briefly became of interest to tabloids during a stint as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. After being voted off, Ravens reportedly argued with the show’s judge, Craig Revel Horwood. “Craig really annoyed me from the outset,” she later told the Daily Mail. “He said that, as a comedian, I wouldn’t take the show seriously. OK, it’s not like going down a mine, but it’s not just faffing around giggling either. It’s bloody hard work.”
A brief sojourn on the dancefloor in sequins aside, the overdue attention being lavished on Ravens this summer must be welcome.
An admittedly partisan Bill Dare sums it up with a playful poke at his television bosses. “I can’t think why BBC1 are doing a show with Tracey Ullman when they could have had Jan. The BBC have always been blind to the talent under their nose. Tracey is terrific, but Jan is a genius.”
THE RAVENS FILES
Born: Janet Ravens, 14 May 1958. Raised in Hoylake on the Wirral, like her idol, Glenda Jackson, and in Cheshire. After West Kirby grammar school for girls, she studied at Homerton College, Cambridge, becoming the first female president of Footlights. Married to music executive Max Hole and mother to three sons, two from her marriage to musician Steve Brown.
Best of times: Scooping the Edinburgh fringe festival’s first Perrier comedy award with a comedy revue show she directed starring the young Stephen Fry et al. And now, with an acclaimed solo show in which she mimics leading politicians, including Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon.
Worst of times: In her early days, filming a commercial for Bounce fabric conditioner in a purple Crimplene suit. A row with Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood that became public after she was voted off the show in 2006.
She says: “My show is a celebration of the tide in the affairs of women that means so many middle-aged women are in positions of power. And I get to take the piss out of them!”
They say: “Watching the silver-tongued impressionist Jan Ravens’s wonderful, if fantastically belated Edinburgh solo debut… I have experienced a volte-face. Theresa must stay… for the sake of comedy.” Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph critic