Sometimes I forget I’m a ventriloquist. I shouldn’t, because it may be my only claim to being unique in my profession. I mean, how many voice coaches do you know who can do a one-hour session without moving their lips? Mind you, how many voice coaches do you know, full stop!
The other day, I was reminded of my unusual vocal ability. I was sitting in the lounge, minding my own business, enjoying a gottle of gear*, when I heard a faint voice wafting in my direction. It seemed to be coming from Pam’s cupboard, in the corner of the room. I opened it tentatively, and there, inside, was a suitcase. Douglas Henshall (star of ‘Shetland’) would probably have suggested there was nobody in it, but I thought I’d better check – just in case.
I’ll pulled it out onto the floor, unzipped the top, and there he was… Douglas Henshall… No, just joking… my alter ego – Alfie, my ventriloquist doll.
Me and Alfie go back a looooong way: 46 years! One of us still looks just the same as he did all those years ago, and it’s not me. You might recall Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. An artist paints Gray’s portrait, and Gray decides to sell his soul so that the picture, rather than he, grows old with the passing years.
The person who created Alfie all those years ago was called Pat. (Alfie still prays to him every night.) Pat assured me that the Dorian Gray scenario would be the case for me, saying that as long as Alfie, when he and I weren’t doing shows together, was kept in a suitcase in a cupboard, he would age, and I would retain my youthful looks.
Well, Pat got it the wrong way round, and as he died years ago, I can’t even get my money back! And now, I still tend to keep Alfie hidden away so as not to be reminded of how I was misled.
Even though I don’t see Alfie very often these days, I sometimes practise ventriloquially (you try and say that without moving your lips!) when I’m driving, or out taking a stroll. It’s fun going past someone walking in the other direction, smiling at them, waiting for them to say ‘Morning’, then, still smiling, replying to them without moving my lips… and them looking around puzzled as if to say ‘Who said that?’
It’s really handy that being able to speak ventriloquially (have you mastered being able to say that without moving your lips yet?) is a bit like being able to ride a bike. You never really forget how to do it. It just needs a bit of practice now and again to sharpen the skill. (Now try and say ‘a bit of practice’ without moving your lips. Good Luck!)
Before I go, a word about the title of this literary masterpiece. The word ventriloquism comes from the Latin, meaning ‘to speak from the stomach: venter (belly) and loqui (speak)’. There are several misattributions associated with ventriloquism: speaking from the belly is one of them. Another is being able to foretell the future. Mind you, somehow, I seem to be able to read Alfie’s mind.
Me and him have had a lot of fun over the years. We’ve done a television variety series, been in a play, appeared on radio (yes… a radio ventriloquist!!), and lots of other live appearances. Most of the time, the shows have gone well, but every now and again, things just haven’t worked out. And believe me, when you’re not getting any laughs, despite the fact that you have your hand inside a vent doll’s back, it feels like you’re sitting or standing there having a conversation with your right hand. All you want to do is run for the hills.
I’ve had a word with Alfie – it was a bit rude, so I can’t possibly repeat it here – but he says it’s alright if I tell you about some of our not-so-successful shows another time. For now, it’s goodbye from me, and goodgye from him.
*’Gottle of gear’ is based on an old joke about how a not very good ventriloquist might say ‘bottle of beer’.
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