Ventriloquist is still hearing voices

LOUD MOUTH: British actress Nina Conti with some of the characters she has created for her career as a ventriloquist. Her story is told in the feature documentary Her Master's Voice.
LOUD MOUTH: British actress Nina Conti with some of the characters she has created for her career as a ventriloquist. Her story is told in the feature documentary Her Master's Voice.

Nina Conti is grabbing a rare moment alone.

In between the morning school run and her own jogging appointment, the engaging, erudite ventriloquist has escaped her family and puppet entourage when I call her. She's in the throes of creating her new live show which Conti admits is challenging. "I've booked a theatre, it's sold out and I have nothing planned," she laughs.

Such bravery would not have been possible without having made her 2012 melancholy documentary Her Master's Voice, she confesses.

"Since making that I've grown quite a lot in confidence – on my last show I think I improvised 40 to 50 per cent of it."

Indeed, before coming up with the idea for her Bafta-nominated film, Conti was ready to give up ventriloquism entirely.

"I was looking into becoming a psychoanalyst – so really I had a narrow escape."

As Her Master's Voice depicts, Conti's career saviour was the man who had led her down that garden path in the first place – Ken Campbell. Her former mentor and lover, Campbell bequeathed Conti his collection of dolls, dummies and puppets when he died in 2008.

"I felt I had to do something with them and after seeing a film about him at a cinema in London and remembering how he goaded and really pinged people off on adventures, I thought I really wanted to have just one more myself."

It involved heading to the place where her original Teach Yourself Ventriloquism kit had come from – Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, home of the Vent Haven [ventriloquy] Museum and annual convention filled with like-minded "stomach speakers".

"The kit contained a lollipop stick, a squeezy plastic mouth ... and a mirror. Ken had started to run classes on it and got really focused on me doing it. He just wouldn't let it go so he delivered the kit to the stage door of the Royal Shakespeare Company where I was an actress at the time in 2000.

"I had to film myself trying it out just to prove to him that I was never going to like it or be any good at it and then I watched it back and went: 'Oh god, it worked.' It really felt like there were two people in the room."

She says it revolutionised her acting.

"I suddenly felt like I was able to act without needing the context of it around me", but she also saw how she could take the art into new places herself.

"I saw an opportunity to make it seem real rather than a stage show and have naturalistic conversations."

Until Campbell's death that was almost exclusively with the acerbic "Monkey", who she says has softened a bit over the years. "He's still world-weary but his charm is a bit deeper now. Before he just used to call me a whore." Conti maintains that she has little or no control over what he says.

"He greets the audience at the start of each show and really anything can come out of his mouth and I'm constantly a step behind. I'm always apologising and not taking responsibility – it's definitely not what I would decide to say myself. One night 'he' said something pretty racist to a Chinese lady – it was just awful. It is a hugely dangerous profession, these thoughts, words just float in your head like flotsam and jetsam and there's just not enough time to consider what you're saying when you're doing two voices and everything else is going on."

As the daughter of two actors, Shirley Valentine's Tom Conti and British television series Grange Hill's Kara Wilson, was Conti destined though for a life on stage?

"I wanted to have other thoughts and desires – it felt really unoriginal to tread in their footsteps. I was very angsty about it in my early 20s, but now I wish I hadn't wasted any time on it. It was just the life I was exposed to – that's who I am. But I guess to do ventriloquism felt like a nice sidestep."

One of her Dad's friends who took an interest in her career was Christopher Guest. The writer-director not only cast her and Monkey as a morning weather team in the 2006 movie For Your Consideration (as well as giving them a role on his short-lived TV series Family Tree), he also acted as executive producer on Her Master's Voice.

"I told him about this convention and Vent Haven in Kentucky and he said: 'Keep me involved'. So I would send him footage and he would always be so gracious and say: 'What do you think?' Which was just the right advice as it was such a personal project."

But despite Conti airing many intimate thoughts and fears on camera (and spending a lot of the hour-long running time talking essentially to herself), she says the toughest part of the project was when she arrived back from Kentucky knowing there was a story to tell but not knowing how to put it together.

"I tried to edit it myself. I went and did a course, bought a MacPro [laptop] and [software program] Final Edit, and then sat there scratching my head thinking: 'How do I do this?' In the end, I had to admit I needed someone professional."

Delighted with the result, Conti confesses even her 9-year-old has seen it ("although I cough loudly or ask if he wants some chocolate during the inappropriate moments").

"He really loved it and then started crying half-an-hour later, saying: 'I feel really sad for you and Ken'. It was really sweet."

Her Master's Voice screens in selected cinemas from today.

The Dominion Post