Grand Theatre bill topper Paul Zerdin has helped make ventriloquism cool again.
From the Royal Variety Show in Blackpool to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland Paul’s fresh twist on this traditional comedy art has impressed everyone from the Queen downwards.
And with a host of TV work already under his belt, Paul has taken his Sponge Fest show out on the road again and will be back in Blackpool on Monday, August 15.
Despite sounding “stagey” his name’s his own.
“My grandfather on my father’s side was Russian and he came over during the revolution,” says Paul. “It was a useful name at school because you could sneak in late and they would still be calling the register.”
Surprisingly ventriloquism wasn’t his first choice for a showbusiness career.
“I was given a book on how to be a ventriloquist and I learnt from that but the whole performing process really started when I was eight or nine,” he says. “I was given the classic Christmas present of a box of magic tricks and I decided then that I wanted to be a magician.
“But, I was also a huge fan of The Muppets and Sesame Street and I knew I wanted to do something with puppet characters. Of course, I didn’t know how to go about it or quite what I wanted to do but then the ventriloquism book was given to me when I was 15 and after that I spent an hour a day practising in front of the mirror and mastering the basic technique.”
He left school with just two GCSEs, a result, he says, of “not caring about schoolwork and being more interested in showbiz and making money doing close-up magic in restaurants and hotels at weekends and performing at kids’ parties too.”
A part-time job in Davenport’s Magic, a famous shop for over a hundred years helped him make a lot of contacts.
“An agent told me that I definitely had something but that she had loads of magicians on her books, what did I have that was different?” says Paul. “I told her I was learning ventriloquism and she said to come back when I had perfected it. When I did she sent me straight out on a cruise ship for a summer working on a line that ran between Helsinki and Stockholm. I did a family show in the afternoon and an adult show at midnight. I had a fantastic time and learnt very quickly about performing and came back feeling really inspired.”
The next step was the North East doing working men’s clubs and holiday camps.
“I’d have been about 17 or 18 at the time. I got a head start from this experience, learning from a young age to deal with culture shock. In that arena the worst thing that can happen to you is not being heckled but being ignored, you have to learn very quickly how to cope with that situation and grab the audience’s attention. It’s the best training anyone can have and a lot of comics today don’t have that.”
But how does ventriloquism fit in the stand up world?
“Quite comfortably because I can work any audience,” says Paul. “Some still see it as an old fashioned art and have the preconceived notion of an old bloke with a dummy. I mix using puppets with talking about ventriloquism in everyday life and twists like ‘hearing people’s thoughts’ and animatronics to give ventriloquism an edge, it’s all about making it cool.
“There is a traditional element to the show, yes, but the puppets aren’t old scary dolls but Muppety-type friendly-looking characters who people instantly warm to.
“I see myself as a one man Muppet sitcom, reigning the characters in. The old man Albert has a thing for the ladies and so does Sam who is about to become a teen and knows naughty words. Between the two of them they lead the baby astray and the baby, of course, wants to know everything. I think it is important to have characters that people can relate to rather than, say, talking sheep which are less believable.”
So what’s next?
“I am writing a film screenplay with a friend of mine at the moment,” says Paul. “It’s showbusiness related, a bit like Entourage in that it is behind-the-scenes. People are more showbiz-savvy now so things like this are not too much an ‘in joke’ anymore.”