Jon Culshaw: From Lydon to Biden

This Edinburgh Fringe sees the debut solo hour for impressionist legend Jon Culshaw. Victor Black sits down with Jon (and Joe Biden, Les Dawson, Patrick Moore...) to discuss his life, career, and relationship with the Festival.

Hi Jon, great show. How's the Fringe started out for you?

It's delightful to run through some favourite characters, bring out new anecdotes, and do a bit of music, which I've not really done to a great extent until now. There are some new bits, like Rishi Sunak, and some characters who refuse to go away, like Mr Trump.

Joe Biden as well. It was a slow burn, people getting to know him, but now he's discernible so people recognise the bits that we caricature. It's quite relaxing playing Biden. I perform Birdhouse in Your Soul as Biden and it suits him so strongly.

Can you tell us about your history with Edinburgh Fringe?

I was first here with Radio 4, for a recording of the panel show First impressions, if you can count it as a debut. I've also done a couple of runs here with The Great British Takeoff: an impression show which was an interview set up with Bill Dare, the producer of Dead Ringers.

Last year I did the one man play, Les Dawson Flying High, and the year before that, Dead Ringers Live.

This is the first time I've done one hour of just me.

What would an objectively successful Fringe look like for you?

I think one where you just really enjoy the fizz, the energy of it. It's got such a unique atmosphere of positivity and generosity and celebration. You're just at the heart of that cyclone and wonderful audiences like today: full of energy, full of laughter. It's a real thing that you share with them.

What were the first impressions that you tried?

Woody Woodpecker, much to my parents' annoyance. Then I think it would have been Patrick Moore when I was very young; I slowed down and said... scientific words. And that became Patrick Moore.

And then my relatives and neighbours: my grandmother's cleaner, Mrs Jump; Mr Nailer, the coal man; Harry from Sawbricks, the delicatessen shop. All wonderful, rich, Lancastrian characters who weren't famous, but were a joy to do.

When people laugh and chuckle, it just makes for a happy atmosphere.

How did you turn impressionism into a career?

Becoming an impressionist was a bit of a fluke.

I was working on radio and used to do voices as a bit of a party trick through the show. One afternoon, I was interviewing Lenny Henry on Viking FM in Hull. I was 21. I was so, so admiring of him and we just ended up mucking about. He said "Oh, you should apply for Spitting Image, they're always looking for people." So I stayed behind after the show and edited together voices of the mid-90s onto cassettes and sent them to Spitting Image. I didn't expect to hear back. Serendipity.

Which famous figures have you most enjoyed playing?

Ah, so many. Albert Einstein, Peter Ustinov, I played David Bowie in a radio drama. And I played John Lydon. I found him to be an amazing character: full of generosity, full of passion, incandescent honesty. The love he shared with his late wife, Nora, as she battled dementia and he really wanted to bring light into those final chapters. It was just so life-affirming hearing him speak about that.

When you study people to play them in a radio drama or something like that, you get to know them and empathise.

I've got a scenario for you. The ghost of Patrick Moore appears to you in your sleep and invites you to select one day in your life to be your Groundhog Day. What day do you choose to relive?

Wow, what a fantastic question. I think it will be February 2015. I was on a ship north of the Faroe Islands to see the total eclipse of the sun.

It had been pristine, clear skies for all the days before. I woke up and the sky was totally overcast, and sleet was falling. We were so crestfallen. One of the onboard astronomers had a good relationship with the ship's captain, and told him, "We have to take the ship to a place where the clouds are thinner, and we must do it now."

Like a moment on the Starship Enterprise, we felt the ship do a handbrake turn and then sail in a different direction where the clouds might have been more cooperative. We had to go through some choppy seas. In a nearby cabin, you could hear a glass slide across the table, shatter, and someone call out, "Oh Christ, me teeth!"

But, as the first little chunk came out of the sun, the clouds were thinner. Then, as the partial phases went along, more and more was blotted out, until the moment it became total. When framed, in a great hole of cloud, the total eclipse of the sun looked as though the clouds had parted, like the waters of the Red Sea.

Do you have a favourite astronomy fact?

The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon, but 400 times further away, so they appear identically sized in the sky. And that's why eclipses happen.

Earth is the only place we know of where solar eclipses happen like that.

That's fascinating, thank you. Are there any shows at the Festival you're keen to recommend or excited to see?

I would recommend Lena, written by Tim Whitnall, with Erin Armstrong as Lena Zavaroni. It reminds everyone what a great trooper and wonderful talent Lena was, and how she battled against her demons in a very brave way. I play Hughie Green in that one.

Also, Jason Byrne. Daniel Sloss and Giles Brandreth. And Chelsea Hart's show Damet Garm: How I Joined a Revolution about how she became famous in Iran sounds great.

Related Listings




Jon Culshaw: Imposter Syndrome

Jon Culshaw: Imposter Syndrome

After over 30 years in the business, impressionist legend Jon Culshaw finally debuts his one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe. 

Articles by Victor Black

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